Nets guard Kyrie Irving looks on against the Phoenix Suns...

Nets guard Kyrie Irving looks on against the Phoenix Suns during the first half at Barclays Center on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

By the time the Nets took on the Clippers Saturday night, it had been 202 days since Kyrie Irving played in an NBA game. That’s a long time for a professional athlete to stay dormant, but still, Steve Nash doesn’t believe his point guard has missed a step.

Irving, who sprained his ankle in the conference semifinals last year, missed the first few months of the season for not adhering the New York’s vaccination mandate, and then entered into the NBA’s health and safety protocols, may be ready to finally play a game either on Jan. 5 at Indiana or Jan. 12 in Chicago. And though he still can’t play home games, Nash was clearly impressed with his progress in isolation.

"He looks great, considering," Nash said Saturday before the Nets took on the Clippers. "He was in isolation for however many days — 10 days, I think. So, for him to come out of that and to look as good as he has playing with the stay-ready group and getting his rhythm back has been exciting. I don’t want to diminish the transition, still — different from playing. It’s a more informal kind of stay-ready games rather than playing NBA games with schemes and sets and adapting to everything — refereeing and different opposition and all that stuff. So we still have to get him time to get his feet under him but as far as how he looks, he looks very, very gifted."

Still, Nash acknowledged that it’s just not that easy to get back into an NBA rhythm. Irving may have it better than most, but the speed of the game, along with daily conditioning, still presents a challenge.

"I think he’s on his way," he said. "He’s getting close. We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t make a hasty decision."

Either way, Irving’s return, however limited, will be a big help and along with Kevin Durant puts Big 3 together again. James Harden has taken the role of facilitator — leading to a career-high average in assists so far (9.8) but close to a career low in points per game. It also helps that Harden already has seen a resurgence of his own, scoring 33, 39, and 36 points in his last three games after missing the previous four in health and safety protocols.

"Let’s be fair, he’s trended in a positive direction throughout the season," Nash said. "There’s a big gap to overcome having inactivity, so let’s not underestimate what that's like. I think, ironically, him being out with health and safety gave him some rest, a reboot, and he came out of it exceeding expectations. He seemed more explosive and had more pomp."

He added that the Nets playing with a smaller group — COVID-19 and injuries have ravaged the team, much like much of the NBA — gave Harden a sense of focus. Instead of passing off the ball, he's had a better chance of being the explosive scorer that made him a force in Houston. That, too, has given the Nets and Nash something to think about.

"There was a lot of freedom for him to not think and manage and just have a lot of freedom and just attack," Nash said. "How can we find the right balance for James where he can have that freedom and attack and at the same time, the team flows and has the kind of connectivity offensively where we have different layers to our offense when needed? So, I think that if you add those all up, we’re seeing James playing incredible basketball right now and I think all those things contribute to it."

Notes & quotes: Kessler Edwards cleared health and safety protocols. Only Joe Harris (left ankle surgery) and Irving remain out . . . The Clippers played without coach Tyronn Lue, who entered the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Nash didn’t think it would be an advantage. "Coaching is very overrated, so it’s not the biggest deal," he said, self-effacingly. "It can give your team a bump" to have someone else calling the shots.

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