INDIANAPOLIS – As expected, Kyrie Irving was in the Nets’ starting lineup for his season debut against the Pacers Wednesday night at Bainbridge Fieldhouse. But it wasn’t exactly instant karma.
Irving missed all three shots he took in the first period and committed one turnover. Irving totaled eight first-half points and added four assists, but he didn’t exactly wake the Nets’ dormant offense, as many expected despite playing just under 17 minutes. The Nets trailed at halftime, 73-60, and the number of points scored by the Pacers represented a season-high allowed in any half by the Nets.
The showstopper in the opening quarter was former Pacers star Lance 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 Damantas Sabonis, Stephenson scored the final 20 points of the opening period for the Pacers, who grabbed a 37-32 lead.
By halftime, Stephenson had 24 points, including 4-for-5 three-point shooting, and Sabonis already was close to a triple-double with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists. As for the other two members of the Nets’ big three, Kevin Durant scored 20, but James Harden just matched Irving with eight points.
Asked at the morning shootaround if Irving might face any minutes restrictions, Nash said it would be nothing significant. "I don’t think it’s where he can play 38, but I think he can play a big chunk of the game," Nash said. "He’s had three or four full-court days with five-on-five. I think he’s capable of playing extended minutes but not necessarily his accustomed high 30s."
Irving last played with the Nets during the first week of training camp in San Diego and in a preseason game in Los Angeles. When Irving made it clear he was not going to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and therefore would be ineligible to play home games plus two road games against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden because he has not complied with the city vaccine mandate, the Nets decided on Oct. 12 that he could not practice or play with them because they didn’t want a part-time player.
They reversed that decision on Dec. 17, but Irving immediately went into health and safety protocols after returning either a positive or inconclusive COVID test. But he returned to practice, and the Pacers game is the first for which he was eligible. Considering the Nets (23-12) were coming off three straight home losses, the timing seemed perfect. Nash expressed confidence in Irving’s ability to adjust to their game plan.
"Kyrie knows what he’s doing," Nash said. "He’s been with us, and he also can adapt to situations. We haven’t had a ton of time to really give him the tutorials, but that’s something we are happy to do on the fly…I think he’ll be fine."
The Nets came into the Pacers game with a 13-3 road record that was tied with Utah for best in the NBA. But their recent three-game homestand was a disaster with losses to the 76ers, Clippers and Grizzlies. Nash emphasized the importance of remembering the Nets have won with defense, but that begged the question of whether things might change with Irving in the lineup.
"Well, Kyrie obviously gives us a chance to be better offensively," Nash said. "That’s for sure, especially with Kyrie and Joe (injured Harris). However, this year we have won with our defense. That is clear. We can’t lose sight of that. Hopefully, we’re improved offensively with Kyrie, but we can’t let go of where we’ve put ourselves defensively."
The 73 first-half points yielded by the Nets suggested otherwise.