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Kenny Atkinson still can't say when Kyrie Irving will return

Nets guard Kyrie Irving, center, jokes with forward

Nets guard Kyrie Irving, center, jokes with forward Kevin Durant, left, during a timeout against the Boston Celtics during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. Credit: AP/Adam Hunger

To hear Kenny Atkinson, Kyrie Irving’s return to the Nets is not a matter of if, but of when.

But exactly when the All-Star guard returns is a question that the coach was unwilling to answer.

“I’m not going to give you any date,” Atkinson said after the Nets’ walk-through Saturday at HSS Training Center ahead of Sunday’s matinee against the Southeast Division-leading Heat. “I can’t do that.”

Following Friday’s 112-107 win over the Celtics, Atkinson said Irving had begun “on-court work which is a real positive sign for us,” but the guard would “be out for Miami, and then we will see how it progresses.”

According to Atkinson, Irving participated in on-court activities during the walk-through, and later said the Nets medical staff would decide if Irving would be able to travel with the team to Atlanta and Charlotte this coming week. Irving sat on the bench during Friday night’s game against his former team. 

The 27-year old has not played since Nov. 14 because of a shoulder impingement, a stretch of eight games. The Nets have gone 6-2 without Irving. Overall, the Nets are 10-9, good for fourth in the Atlantic and seventh in the East.

“That’s all the momentum we need,” Taurean Prince said. “We know we can win [without] Kyrie but when he gets back, it’ll be that much better.”

A significant factor for the Nets success has been the play of fifth-year guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who has averaged 24.5 points per game in the eight-game stretch.

“I think that’s one of the things,” Atkinson said. “How do you help him be more confident, a confident player? I think that was kind of Spencer’s thing from the beginning. He didn’t know how good he was and now he’s starting to realize.”

Which presents Atkinson with some options once Irving and wingman Caris LeVert (thumb surgery) return to the lineup. Dinwiddie is averaging 20.2 points per game this season. Before they were injured, Irving was scoring at a 28.5 PPG and LeVert averaged 16.8 points. 

Would Atkinson be open to having Dinwiddie, Irving and LeVert on the court at the same time?

“We played them together at the end of games,” Atkinson said. “Does that mean they’re going to start together? Probably not. We’ll see what that looks like. At the end of the day, you want your best players on the floor, especially at the end of games, so I could see that happening a lot.”

While getting Irving and LeVert back into the lineup will be a big helpi, it also presents a bit of a conundrum. 

What happens to Dinwiddie when Irving and LeVert return? Irving is a scoring point guard, and LeVert will need touches, too.

“I don’t want him to take a step back,” Atkinson said. “I think that’s kin is to continue that aggressiveness. And it’s not your turn, my turn, right? It’s playing together with those guys. Because Spencer can play off the ball really well, he can play on the ball.”

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