INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time this season, the Nets had their "Big 3" together as Kyrie Irving made his season debut as part-time road player. But for three quarters, it appeared the Nets were on the verge of their "Big 4," as in a season-worst fourth straight loss against the Pacers Wednesday night at Bainbridge Fieldhouse.
But suddenly, it was as if their muscle memory kicked in. Starting late in the third period, the Nets fashioned an epic 48-23 finishing run. Irving scored 13 of his 22 points in that span, including 10 in the final period, and Kevin Durant had 10 of his 39 as the Nets rebounded impressively for a 129-121 victory over the Pacers.
Irving admitted being emotional about his return under these circumstances as an unvaccinated player who only was eligible for the final 22 road games starting with the Pacers. When asked to compare this season debut to all the other debuts in his career, he left no doubt.
"I’ve had a lot of debuts, but nothing comes close to this one," Irving said. "It meant a little bit more just because, at this stage, being out of the game for eight months and coming back in, there’s so much uncertainty — How many minutes? What’s the flow of the game going to be like? How are my teammates going to feel? You just don’t have any idea.
"So I went in with a just an open mindset, just to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win. In the first possession when I shot that shot, I was so caught up in just making my first two points, I was so nervous. Naturally, as a performer, I still get nervous. But that first shot, I wanted that to go in."
It didn’t. Irving missed all three shots he took in the first period and committed one turnover. The showstopper in the opening quarter was former Indiana star Stephenson, who sat out two seasons before returning to play six games earlier this season with Atlanta. He then rejoined the Pacers.
This was his third game back. Stephenson entered the game when it was tied at 15. After a layup by Domantas Sabonis, Stephenson scored the final 20 points of the opening period for the Pacers, who grabbed a 37-32 lead.
By halftime, the Nets trailed at 73-60, and the number of points scored by the Pacers represented a season-high allowed in any half by the Nets. Their deficit grew to 19 in the third quarter and still was at 17 when they mounted their final charge.
Irving scored 13 of the Nets’ final 46 points in that crushing comeback run. Asked about the importance of that performance, Irving said, "It felt good but it really just started on the defensive end. I think that’s where we’re going to make our mark by consistently climbing up into guys and making it difficult. We’re 1-2 in the East and we have aspirations to be playing later in the postseason so I just think us settling in as a team and just being honest with one another out there, it helps."
The Nets improved to 24-12. In addition to Durant and Irving, the Nets got 18 points from James Harden, 13 from LaMarcus Aldridge and 12 from Nic Claxton, and they shot 56.3% from the field despite a 5-for-21 performance from three-point range.
The Pacers (14-25), who were on the second night of a back-to-back, were led by a triple-double from Sabonis, who totaled 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. They got 30 from Lance Stephenson on 12-for-19 shooting.
When it ended, it felt like the Nets were whole again. There was no mistaking Durant’s joy about Irving’s return.
"It was amazing to have him out there," Durant said. "I just missed his presence around the locker room, his energy, his vibe around the team. and then on top of [that], his game is just so beautiful . . . the game of basketball is happy to have him back."