Nets' Kyrie Irving drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Wesley Matthews during...

Nets' Kyrie Irving drives past Milwaukee Bucks' Wesley Matthews during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022, in Milwaukee. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

Kyrie Irving may be one of the most polarizing figures in sports, but there’s no two sides to what he did in Milwaukee Saturday night.

Irving’s 38-point performance in leading the undermanned Nets to a 126-123 win over the defending NBA champions was the kind of gutty showing that sends a loud and clear message to the rest of the NBA.

Memo to League: No, the Nets are not dead.

For the first time in more than a month, the Nets appear to have their mojo back. The team that plummeted out of first place and lost 11 in a row suddenly looks like it just might be able to contend for a championship after all.

Yes, it was one game. But viewed against the backdrop of the recent news that Kevin Durant is headed back to the team sometime this week and New York City Mayor Eric Adams is reconsidering the vaccination mandate that has kept Irving from playing in Brooklyn, one has to wonder whether the team has reached a turning point.

"It could be," coach Steve Nash said. "I don’t want to get carried away. It’s one win. Guys were rewarded for their effort and play and character tonight . . . Let’s just take it day by day right now. Be really grateful for the effort and the character these guys have shown recently. They got a win tonight, and let’s see what we can do Monday against Toronto."

Nash can be excused for his caution. For weeks, Nash was optimistic as he tried to steer the Nets out of their free fall. It couldn’t have been easy for Nash to keep a smile on his face as the Nets went 5-14 in the wake of Durant’s MCL injury. Or when James Harden shredded the team chemistry by demanding a trade.

With only 22 games left to climb out of the play-in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, it’s understandable that Nash isn’t ready to declare that the Nets' roller-coaster ride is over. What he does continue to insist is that his team will be a better one for going through everything it has this season.

"We’ve had some tough weeks here and we’ve asked them to stay together first of all," Nash said. " . . . This will be the building blocks of whatever success we can attain in the end. It’s a big win, but a small step. It’s proof that their work was worth it."

Perhaps no one was more optimistic about the path the team is now on than Irving.

The last time Irving played in Milwaukee, both his and — for all practical purposes — the Nets’ season ended as he limped off the floor with a sprained ankle in Game 4 of last year’s Eastern Conference playoff series. It sort of made for a nice symmetry Saturday if the Nets would revive their season in the same place it died last year.

"It was definitely emotional for me to prepare for this game," Irving said. "It definitely felt like there was a weight lifted just getting back here and being healthy and getting a win and knowing there’s a possibility we could see them down the line again."

Heading into Sunday night’s play, the Nets were 3 ½ games behind No. 6 Boston for the final playoff spot that doesn’t involve a play-in game. They are a game behind Toronto, whom they play in what is a huge home-and-home on Monday and Tuesday.

Because of his unvaccinated status, Irving will miss both of those games and Nash also said that it is not likely Durant will play in them either. Irving, however, is hopeful they will all be together on the court, both away and at Barclays Center, soon.

"I’m glad that things are kind of settling down and there’s light at the end of the tunnel here," Irving said.

It appears there may be.