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Is Kyrie Irving returning to Nets' lineup? It's probable

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets looks on

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets looks on from the bench during the first half against the Miami Heat at Barclays Center on Jan. 10, 2020. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Kyrie Irving is on the verge of making his long-awaited return to the Nets’ lineup after missing the past 26 games with a right shoulder impingement. On Saturday evening, the Nets listed Irving as probable for their game against the Hawks Sunday night at Barclays Center.

This is where the Nets’ season starts to get interesting, especially for coach Kenny Atkinson, who recently admitted he has been looking ahead, studying possible permutations for figuring out how to use point guards Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert together. Who knows how that will look at first if the Nets follow their normal protocol of limited use for players coming off injuries?

LeVert will be playing just his fourth game since returning from right thumb surgery, and while he and Irving were down, Dinwiddie stepped up to deliver a performance that has him in consideration for an All-Star berth. Since taking over as the starter, Dinwiddie is fifth in Eastern Conference scoring (24.8) and assists (7.2) and sixth in the NBA in usage rate (.324).

Atkinson said he and his staff have been reviewing what he described as a “ton of variables,” especially while working LeVert back into the lineup. The coach hinted at the idea of keeping Dinwiddie in the starting lineup with Irving once everyone is fully healthy.

“Obviously, that’d be a tough tandem to match up with,” Atkinson said. “Spencer can obviously guard off the ball easy — he’s 6-6 — and Spencer’s a two-way player. It’s exciting to think what it could be…You could have Caris, Kyrie and Spencer. That was obviously in the original plans. You could play them as a finishing lineup. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that at all.”

Atkinson said he has held “quarterback meetings” with all three guards to discuss how they might approach future rotation strategies. “It’s like we’re finishing each other’s sentences,” Atkinson said. “‘We can dribble-handoff better. We need more energy in this. We can screen down here.’…It’s amazing how they get it, especially the point guards, where we can be better.”

Despite the 4-7 record when Irving went to the training room, he got off to a brilliant start, averaging 28.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, joining Luka Doncic, James Harden and LeBron James as the only players averaging at least 25 points, five rebounds and seven assists. The question is how he might adjust to a pairing with Dinwiddie in which Irving might not be such a dominant presence.

“You’ve just got to find that happy balance of when we have shooters out there and not rely too much on Joe Harris to knock every shot in or for Spence to be demanded every single game to be that 25- or 30-point scorer,” Irving said after going through his first five-on-five scrimmage last Thursday. “That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person to (facilitate) all our offense and being able to break down.

“We’ve got to give him a lot of credit, but we’ve got to give him some help offensively and put him in some spots that can make him successful and get him off the ball. When I’m back and Caris is back, then we just figure out the offense and how to get our three-guard front to work really well. Then, pick our minutes together and when we’re apart.”

The Nets went 11-5 in Dinwiddie’s first 16 games as the starter but have gone 2-8 since then as pressure mounted on him to carry the offense. But Dinwiddie got back to his aggressive downhill style with 26 points and 14 assists in a win over Miami Friday night that snapped a seven-game losing streak.

“I’m just really proud of him,” Irving said of Dinwiddie. “He should really be proud of himself. I know he’s going to put a lot of pressure in terms of the team’s success on his back. That’s just part of being one of the best players on the team.

“You’re looked at to be very aggressive, and there are going to be nights where you’re not shooting well or you are shooting well, and you’ve still got to be able to level off the team. That’s something that he’s learning, and I think it’s a great position for him to be in.”

Irving insisted he’s not worried about how he and Dinwiddie might complement each other because they both understand how to play basketball the right way and adjust to whoever is on the court with them. “It’s not about one person taking this amount of shots or this person coming in and fitting in,” Irving said. “When you’re able to play basketball at a high level, you’re able to fit in with anyone. So, we’ll figure that out when we get to that point.

“As of right now, I’m going to continue to progress and keep making some key tweaks, what I can from the bench. When I’m playing again, we’ll go from there. But like I said, I’m nothing but proud of Spencer.”

As for Dinwiddie’s take on the situation, he was uncomfortable presuming too much about his future role without knowing what Atkinson already had shared with the media. “When Kyrie gets back, whether that means if I’m still starting or coming off the bench, it’s all part of it,” Dinwiddie said. “As long as we get wins and try to play to the best of our ability, that’s all we can hope for...We talked about it, and we’re going to figure it out

All-Star votes for Irving

Despite playing only 11 games so far this season, the Nets’ Irving currently is running second in fan voting for the Eastern Conference All-Star team behind Trae Young of the Hawks, who face the Nets Sunday night at Barclays Center, and ahead of Kemba Walker, who replaced Irving with the Celtics. Now that Irving is close rejoining  to the Nets’ lineup possibly within the next week, he’s intent on proving he deserves that spot.

“It’s an entertainment league, and I think that I put in a lot of work in this league to be up there whether I’m playing or not,” Irving said of the surprising vote. “If you want to see an All-Star game, then, I would vote for myself as well. I’m serious. I’m going to go out there, we’re going to put on a show, but at the same time, there is a respect level that I have for all the guys that have been playing throughout the season. They’re as much deserving of being in that spot.”

Irving opened the season with a 50-point game and averaged big-time numbers — 28.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. But the Nets have gone 13-13 with Spencer Dinwiddie as a starter and in that role Dinwiddie is fifth in Eastern Conference scoring (24.8) and assists (7.2) and sixth in the NBA in usage rate (.324). Dinwiddie was 10th among Eastern Conference guards in the first fan vote but dropped out of the top 10 in the second tally released last week.

“The fans will do their job of voting for who they want to see in there, but when I’m back, please believe I’m going to make a push for something as well as bringing a teammate with me,” Irving said, referring to Dinwiddie. “I’m going to be pushing for him (Dinwiddie) to get in there as well. We’ll see what happens, but the first priority is getting healthy and get back with my teammates.”

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