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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Without Kevin Durant this year, this is Kyrie Irving's Nets team

Kyrie Irving of the Nets attempts a shot

Kyrie Irving of the Nets attempts a shot in the first half against the Timberwolves at Barclays Center on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

No one has ever doubted Kyrie Irving’s athletic talents.

Irving may be the best dribbler in the NBA. His game is creative, pretty and athletic. The six-time All-Star can be counted to put on a show almost every night, whether he be scoring on an athletic reverse lay-in over some befuddled looking defender or making the perfect pass to a wide-open teammate.

The knock on Irving as he entered his first game as a Net on Wednesday night – a thrilling 127-126 overtime loss to the Timberwolves – had nothing to do with his skill or effort on the floor. Rather, it had to do with chemistry and the effect he has had on his teammates in the past.

Granted one game is a small sampling, but it looks as though Irving's Nets are going to at least be entertaining. The Nets did lose in the most painful of ways – Irving missed a 15-footer at the buzzer after slipping on a crossover – but fans were treated to a historical first performance.

Irving scored 50 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had seven assists.  He became just the seventh player in franchise history to score 50 or more points in a game.  He became the first NBA player to score more than 47 points in a first game with a new team. It was his third career game of 50 or more points, and all told he shot 17-of-33 from the floor, including 7-of-14 from three-point range.

“It’s amazing to watch,” Jarrett Allen said. “He can do almost anything with a ball.”

It was a gutsy performance for a player who is decidedly under the microscope. Irving was far from a fan favorite with his two previous teams. The knock on him when he played with LeBron James in Cleveland is he didn’t want to be a follower. And the knock on him last year in Boston was he didn’t want to be a leader.

With Kevin Durant out for the season recovering from a torn Achilles, however, Irving is the lone alpha dog, the guy who will be feeling the heat from both the media and the fans if things don’t go well.

The one person he won’t be feeling the heat from, however, is Nets coach Kenny Atkinson.

 “I told him the pressure is not just on you,” Atkinson said before Wednesday night's game. “You don’t have to come in here and put the weight on you. I need to perform well. Our younger guys need to get better. We’re going to support you.”

Atkinson has gotten high marks over the past three years for the way he developed a bunch of youngsters, castoffs and never-beens into a respectable NBA team. Now, it appears his development days aren’t over as he is using a gentle and encouraging hand to try to mold his talented 27-year-old guard into a leader.

 “I don’t think he feels the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Our job here is to give him support,” Atkinson said. “Not saying he didn’t have support in Boston. But sometimes I think guys say, ‘Man, I’ve got to lead these young guys. I’ve got to take out the garbage and cook dinner.' No, just be the great player that you are. Play super hard, play both ends, and we’re here to support you and I’m here to support you.

“That’s kind of where we are. I hope that relieves some of the kind of pressure of being a quote-unquote leader.”

Irving has proven himself to be enough of a leader that he was the driving force in getting Durant to come to the Nets. Irving grew up in East Orange, New Jersey. The first NBA game he ever saw was a Nets game at Continental Airlines Arena when he was in fourth grade. It made him a Nets fan for life.

 Irving appeared to get choked up as he briefly addressed the crowd at the Barclays Center before the game. It’s clear that for the first time in his life, he is playing for at team where he thinks he can be himself and put to good use the lessons he has learned on his journey back home.

“It’s been eight years being in different places,” he said. “It’s not about Boston. It’s not about Cleveland. It’s about the experiences and the lessons I learned from them…. Moving forward, I have an opportunity to be here for a few years. I’m nothing but excited.”

 Excited and determined.


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