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Here Comes Kyrie Irving

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JANUARY 12: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets walks backcourt during a game against the Chicago Bulls at United Center on January 12, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Brooklyn Nets have been remarkably miserable for the better part of the last month. An 11-game losing streak strained an already fragile relationship with James Harden to its breaking point, forcing the Nets to dissolve a theoretically world-conquering Big Three after just 16 games played together and coalesce around an even less reliable trio of superstars. In theory, Ben Simmons, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving fit together pretty much perfectly, though the most immediately relevant clause in that sentence is “in theory” for what I think are pretty obvious reasons at this point. A full month with wins against only Kings and the Knicks (who are both fake teams) has ensured a probable trip to the play-in, though things are finally looking up. Irving had his best game of the season last night, only days after New York City Mayor Eric Adams and commissioner Adam Silver laid the groundwork for Irving’s full return.

First, the game. Because Irving’s self-centered vaccine holdout has understandably commanded most of the attention this year, I think it’s been easy to forget what a special player he can be. Irving showed it all off last night against the Bucks in a 38-point masterclass against the defending champs, which the Nets won despite the continued absence of their other two superstars. Irving has been one of the best ballhandlers in the league as long as he’s been in it, and as sophisticated as team defenses have become in response to the spread pick-and-roll revolution, the ability to smoke a guy off the dribble erases all that sound theory. The Bucks tried to keep Jrue Holiday on Irving as much as they could last night and it barely mattered.

The absences of Irving, Durant, and now Simmons have overshadowed an equally big loss for the Nets: Joe Harris. Without Harris, the Nets’ spacing is significantly impacted, and Steve Nash had to resort to having James Johnson and Bruce Brown handle the rock at times in order to get Irving and Seth Curry run-around off the ball. It paid off in a big second half, where Irving had 21 of Brooklyn’s 73 points. He punished Milwaukee defenders all night, showing himself to be every bit the bucket-getter he was the last time he played in Milwaukee, when a sprained ankle in last year’s playoffs downed the Nets’ title chances. Beating the defending champs in their city is a pretty big win, and a very welcome relief after a month of pain.

Above all else, though, the Nets’ title chances may depend on Irving being available to play at home in the postseason. That matter is still up in the air, but Eric Adams, the weirdest man in the world, has started to lay the rhetorical groundwork for the rollback of several COVID-19 regulations, including the city’s vaccine mandate. “I can’t wait to get it done,” Adams said of ending the mandate, adding that he looked forward to “going through a real transformation” in the “next few weeks.” Adams also spoke about Irving directly, saying on Friday, “I want that championship ring, but not at the expense of making sure we shut down our city again—and if it falls in line [it] falls in line, if it’s not we got to make the right decision for New Yorkers.” That’s not very direct, though remember, this is a guy who wants to remember what his friends look like.

Adam Silver also wants to see a fully intact Nets team in the playoffs because of the obvious financial benefits, and he pointed out that the city’s vaccine mandate is “unfair” since unvaccinated road players can still play in Brooklyn. Irving praised Silver and expressed his relief at the prospect of getting to play again. “I’m glad that things are kind of settling down and there’s light at the end of the tunnel here,” Irving said. “Hopefully, I can get back on that home floor playing in the [Nets arena] and now we can finally have that conversation that you’ve been dying to have just about turning the page and moving forward beyond this. But like I said, I’m not the only one. I feel for everybody that’s either in my boat or a similar boat or have dealt with some type of trauma from this. And just wishing everybody well-wishes, always.” Muddled, as usual, but he finally has reason for optimism.

Even still, one could be forgiven for taking the pessimistic view of these newly recoagulated Nets, as they have pretty much only ever existed in theory. Sure, Simmons-Durant-Irving is a terrifying trio, but Simmons hasn’t played in an eon, Durant has played only 71 regular season games since signing with the Nets in the summer of 2019, and Irving’s status is still not yet resolved. This team has 21 games left before they will have to make it through a suddenly all-killer Eastern Conference, and the odds are still weighted against the three stars sharing the court at the same time before the regular season ends. As Irving showed a glimpse of last night, the team’s talent level is still stunning. But it was just a glimpse, and as enticing as the real thing could be, they are running out of time to show themselves.

Update, 5:11 p.m.: Looks like Kyrie will be back full-time in a week.