Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving driving to the basket against the...

Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving driving to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers' Caris LeVert in the 2nd quarter at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Friday April 8, 2022 Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

There are many eyes on Kyrie Irving this postseason.

Is Irving worth it? Is he worth the drama, the politics, the juggling of lineups, the demonstration outside the arena and the five-plus months of never-ending distraction?

Is he worth the Nets looking wishy-washy as an organization when they decided to bring him back as a part-time player after initially trying to strong-arm him into getting vaccinated?

Is he really a generational talent, a guy worth going to the mat for — even though with Irving, the mat seems to be constantly moving and you’re never quite sure who the opponent is?

Nets fans will begin to find that out Sunday as the seventh-seeded Nets open the NBA playoffs against the second-seeded Celtics at TD Garden in Boston.

Irving played in only 29 games this season, mostly because of a mandate that prohibited unvaccinated athletes from playing in New York City and Toronto.

He did not appear in a single game before Jan. 5 because the Nets initially didn’t like the idea of his being a part-time player. Then he played only in road games outside of New York and Canada as the Nets decided to try to accommodate him as a part-time player.

Irving’s absence is the biggest reason the Nets, who were projected by most NBA observers to be the top team in the Eastern Conference, finished the season as a play-in team and will open the playoffs on the road.

His part-time status also might have been the reason the Nets traded James Harden to Philadelphia, though the jury is still out on whether that is a good or bad thing.

If Irving can help lead the Nets deep into the playoffs, fans might decide they can live with all the drama of the regular season. And what better place for Irving to start winning them over than against Boston, his team for two seasons before leaving for the Nets as a free agent in 2019.

Nets coach Steve Nash doesn’t think his star player has anything to prove in this postseason.

“I don’t think that’s something Kyrie should worry about,” Nash said. “He made a decision. That’s in the past and here we are. He really should be looking forward and not feel any sort of stress about what’s in the past. Really focus on going forward, and this group has now been together with him for, I don’t know, a month? So that’s where we should be. We’re building something here and we’ve been together the better part of a month and we’ve got to continue to improve through the playoffs. For this group, it’s still before Thanksgiving, so to speak.”

Of course, the reason the Nets have had a full-time Irving for only the better part of a month is that he chose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and two New York mayors would not lift the city’s vaccine mandate until just before the start of the baseball season.

Irving’s choice, however, came at a personal cost. Unvaccinated players, according to an agreement with the players’ union, could be docked a little more than 1% of their salary for every game they couldn’t play because of local mandates, which in Irving’s case meant home games, games against the Knicks and games in Toronto (a Canadian government mandate bars players who are not fully vaccinated from entering that country).

That means that Irving, according to Forbes, lost approximately $380,000 per game.

Irving said after practice Friday that he has no regrets about his decision not to be vaccinated and that he believes it’s the right decision for himself.

“I can really say that I stood firm on what I believed in, what I wanted to do with my body,” he said. “I think that should be not just an American right, I think that should be a human right.”

Irving intimated that it wasn’t always easy weathering the attacks he got on social media and the mainstream media.

“I heard everything,” he said. “I was called so many different names .  .  . It was part of a struggle of mine to look at the season, a game that I love — my job, I can’t even keep calling it a game, it’s my job — [for] that to be stripped away based on a mandate or something that was in place.”

When asked if he felt he had something to prove in the playoffs to the fans and team that had stuck by him, Irving said “that’s a good question” but did not answer it. Instead, he talked about how grateful he was to receive the support he did.

“It’s a great feeling when you know during uncomfortable times you can really lean in on different individuals despite their role in different sectors or different places in our organization or things that they stand for,” Irving said. “And some people stood by me in public, some people stood by me in private and I’m OK with both. Some people disagree with me in public, some people disagree with me in private. It doesn’t really bother me as much as it did in the beginning of the season, because everything was just so new.”

No matter how you feel about Irving’s decision, it’s hard not to be wowed by his level of play since his return as a full-time participant.

He is a captivating playmaker who also can put up 60 points in a game. What’s more, he makes those around him better.

Including the play-in victory over Cleveland, the Nets have won five in a row with Irving. In games this season in which Kevin Durant and Irving both played, the Nets are 12-6, including the play-in.

Durant is not surprised that Irving has been able to deal with the issues he has faced this year and come back to play at a high level.

“He’s just doing his job,” Durant said. “For him, he understands his job and who he is as a player. Once you have that belief in yourself. No matter what, be out five or six months, not play all year, fasting. Once you understand who you are on that floor and what you bring, I think you can endure pretty much anything. It’s just a testament to working on his game all these years and working on his craft.”

That craft, and how he applies it in these playoffs, ultimately will decide whether everything the Nets have gone through this season is worth it.

Kyrie's impact

In 29 games with the Nets this season Kyrie Irving has averaged 27.4 points a game, with four games of 40 or more points:

Pts.     Opponent       Date           Nets result

60        at Orlando      March 15   Won, 150-108

50        at Charlotte    March 8      Won, 132-127

43        at Memphis    March 23    Lost, 132-120

42        Houston         April 5         Won, 118-105

For the record

The Nets with Irving in the lineup this season:

29            Games

14-15       Overall W-L

10-13       Road W-L

4-2           Home W-L

His numbers

27.4         Avg. points

4.4           Avg. rebounds

5.8           Avg. asists

46.9         FG%

41.8        3-pt. FG%

91.5        FT%

More Brooklyn Nets

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