Nets fans celebrated their past and their present in grand fashion Sunday night at Barclays Center. They chanted the name of former franchise star Vince Carter and gave him a standing ovation every time he entered the game for Atlanta. He scored eight points in what was the final visit to the Nets’ home for the retiring 42-year-old star.
More importantly, the fans welcomed Kyrie Irving back from a 26-game absence while he underwent treatment for a right shoulder injury. Irving scored 21 points in 20 minutes as the Nets led by as much as 39 points during a 108-86 in a victory over the Hawks that hinted at more exciting things to come from a roster that finally is whole — with the exception of Kevin Durant, who is expected to sit out the season to recover from Achilles tendon surgery.
Irving’s amazingly efficient performance came on 10-for-11 shooting, and he added four rebounds and three assists to lead the Nets (18-20) to their second straight win.
“It was a long road back,” Irving said. “There was a lot of questions I had to answer, the health of my shoulder, longevity, what would have been the best option for my health long-term [cortisone shot or surgery]. Once I got that foundation set, it was easier to make the decision to come back when I did.
“I hope I can shoot 10-for-11 every night, but reality is that I just got it going and felt pretty good attacking the rim. I’m very grateful for having the coaches and players that were getting me ready playing four-on-four, playing five-on-five and kind of pushing me and allowing me to test it against them.”
Playing with their healthiest lineup since early in the season, the Nets had a balanced attack that included 14 points from Taurean Prince, and 13 each from DeAndre Jordan and Caris LeVert. Spencer Dinwiddie started with Irving and turned more playmaker, scoring only seven points but dishing eight assists and playing a major defensive role to help hold the Hawks (8-32), who got 20 points from Cam Reddish, to 33.0 percent shooting. The 86 points allowed by the Nets was their season-low.
Asked about his chemistry with Dinwiddie, Irving said, “Every time someone asks about chemistry, it’s like you’ve got to have reps, you’ve got to be out there together. But something that doesn’t get mentioned a lot is that when you’re a great basketball player, a great basketball mind, you’re able to play with anyone. I just let Spencer get us in the offense and initiate and me play off the ball . . . where we can depend on each other and he can depend on me.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said Irving’s mere presence has lifted the Nets’ morale and that prompted Irving to reflect on criticism he received in Boston as a divisive presence. “I’m not going to be petty here, but there’s been a lot of things said about what I bring to a locker room, the negative side of it, but I’m just going to continue to be me,” Irving said, noting his emphasis on teaching and encouraging teammates and leading team outings to help keep everyone on the same page.
As much as he enjoyed his own comeback, Irving was thrilled to be part of Carter’s farewell. “That was the dream as a kid was to go see Vince Carter and Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets play, but specifically Vince Carter,” Irving said. “He used to do some amazing things. It was incredible as a kid to watch . . . That’s where his name comes from: ‘Half-man, half-amazing.’ I’ve got his jersey in my book bag. I’m a happy New Jersey Nets kid.”