Nets guard Kyrie Irving acknowledges fans before in an NBA...

Nets guard Kyrie Irving acknowledges fans before in an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets at Barclays Center on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Kyrie Irving wore almost entirely black — black coat, black sunglasses donned indoors, and a black hat — but there was no denying as he walked through the bowels of Barclays Center Sunday that he was in the mood to celebrate.

“Oh, it feels good to be home,” he told the waiting cameras. And then, again, just a little bit quieter: “Oh, it feels good to be home.”

Irving took his home court for warmups for the first time since June 7, 2021, and was immediately greeted with chants of “Ky-rie Irv-ing.” When he was introduced before tipoff, the crowd at Barclays first rumbled and then roared for their star point guard. Seconds before the game, Irving pointed at the fans, crouched low to dribble between his legs and bounced the ball high into the air as the crowd cheered.

With all that, his early performance was actually a touch anticlimactic: He went 0-for-4 from the field with two assists in the first quarter, had a reverse layup rim out midway through the frame, and was subbed out for Patty Mills with 2:29 left. With fans chanting “Kyrie’s home,” he scored his first point of the game with 10:15 left in the second quarter — missing one free throw, causing the crowd to cheer him on, and making the second. He tacked on a right-wing three a minute later as the arena exploded. 

And so went the prodigal son’s return to his home court after months of waging a battle he seemed destined to lose: Irving would not get vaccinated against COVID-19. And New York City’s mandates — first the one governing indoor event spaces, and then the one governing private-sector workers — meant that, up until this week, he was barred from playing in Nets home games.

But Mayor Eric Adams Thursday announced an exception to the private-sector mandate, allowing athletes and entertainers to enjoy the same privileges as visiting athletes, who can perform regardless of vaccination status. All of which means Irving, along with unvaccinated members of the Yankees and Mets, get to play. Sunday against the Hornets was the Nets first home game since Adams’ announcement (an announcement that’s caused its fair share of controversy, given that nearly 1500 city workers were fired in February for their refusal to get vaccinated; it’s unclear how many private-sector workers have forfeited their jobs.)

“I’m very hesitant to pretend that [this is] just going to be the way it is,” Steve Nash said of the stability afforded by Irving’s resolved status. “But it would be great if we could have some continuity here and make the most of these remaining games so that we can put ourselves further along and be more prepared and [have] more cohesion and understanding of our style of play together . . . I think it's paramount for our success.”

Going into Sunday, Irving had played in only 21 games this year, and only nine with Kevin Durant in the lineup. But with seven of the final eight regular-season games in New York, and the playoffs on the horizon, the Nets are eager to bring him into the regular fold quickly and, they hope, seamlessly.

Nash said previously that Irving’s skill allows him to sync easily with teammates — something that Irving himself seemed to prove every time he stepped on a court this year, dropping 43 points against the Grizzlies Wednesday, 60 against the Magic on March 15 and 50 against the Hornets March 8.

“I don’t know that it changes the game plan but obviously, there are a few things at play here,” Nash said. “One, he brings a level of talent where we’re able to play in a different way with him on the floor because of his ability. I think also the cohesion and continuity of having him play with his teammates more often allows us to improve. And then the last piece is that when he’s not playing half the games or the majority of the remaining games, it puts such a burden on the rest of the team.”

Nash also didn’t seem overly concerned about how Irving’s body would respond to the sudden increase in workload.

“There’s a different physical toll playing all the games, but he’s been there before,” Nash said. “As he’s managed himself playing sometimes a couple games, three games in a week and then not playing the next week, he may just manage himself jumping back into a regular cadence seamlessly as well, so you just never know. There is an adaptation but he might manage it with no problem or it might affect him a little bit but I don’t think it’s going to be something that is wildly different for him. I think the majority of his basketball career, he’s been playing all the games so we’re hoping that it’s a seamless transition back to playing every night and obviously it’s only eight games.”

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