INDIANAPOLIS — Chalk one up for the visiting team. In his season debut as a part-time road player, Kyrie Irving scored 22 points in 32 minutes and played a key role late in helping the Nets overcome a 19-point third-quarter deficit in a 129-121 win over the Pacers on Wednesday night at Bainbridge Fieldhouse.
The Nets came away encouraged by how well Irving’s return went after sitting out the first 35 games of the season. Together, the Nets’ "Big 3" combined for 79 points, including 39 from Kevin Durant and 18 from James Harden.
After three straight home losses, the Nets were basking in the positive vibes, Irving most of all. "It’s a lot of gratitude just to be present tonight with everyone and just go out there and have fun doing what we love to do," Irving said.
Durant denied there was any connection between Irving’s return and the defensive ineptitude in the first half, when they yielded a season-high 73 points, and he had a point because the Nets had similar breakdowns at home during their three-game losing streak without Irving. Instead, Durant focused on the positive energy Irving brought.
"He makes the game easier for everybody out there," Durant said. "It was amazing to see him on the floor again . . . He made the game so much more difficult for the Pacers, giving us a different attack, especially in the fourth quarter."
Asked if Irving seemed nervous at the outset, Durant said, "Getting thrown into the fire like this midseason, I’m sure he was a little nervous. But it didn’t seem that way as the game went on and he got comfortable."
Harden was equally thrilled by Irving’s return.
"It was special," Harden said. "He looked like Kyrie. It felt good to have him on the court. Our spirit, our energy was better . . . It took him some time to get back into the flow of the game, but when we needed it, he delivered."
Now comes the hard part. The Nets (24-12) return to Barclays Center for their next two games — Friday against the defending NBA champion Bucks (25-15) and Sunday against the Spurs (15-22). The San Antonio game begins a stretch of four games in five days for the Nets. Irving is eligible for games Monday at Portland and Wednesday at Chicago but not for the return home on Thursday against Oklahoma City.
Asked how long it might take to adjust to having Irving only on the road because he is in violation of New York City’s vaccine mandate, Harden was frank. "It’s going to take some time," he said. "We have to get used to him being on the road and not at home. But we’ve been a resilient group all year and eventually will figure it out."
Harden expressed hope Irving might be eligible to play all games at some point, but when Irving was asked if he might get vaccinated, he deflected the question.
"I’m just taking it one day at a time," Irving said. "It’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or just things that’s going on that can help ease what we’re all dealing with [regarding] COVID and the vaccine.
"I think everybody’s feeling it, so I don’t want to make it simply about me or simply about lessening the rules for me. I know what the consequences were. I still know what they are. But right now, I’m just going to take it one day at a time and just enjoy this time that I get to play with my guys. However it looks later in the season, we’ll address it then."