NEW YORK — The dazzle returned with little rust, and the Kyrie Irving show was back after a two-month hiatus at Barclays Center.
He arrived three hours before game time to work himself into a lather, and by the time his name was announced last at tipoff, the crowd was buzzing in anticipation of must-see Kyrie.
His performance was worth the wait, against the perfect opponent in the cellar-dwelling Atlanta Hawks playing without Trae Young on an unassuming Sunday evening. It wasn’t as electrifying as some of his other home showings in his Brooklyn infancy, but it was effective and efficient in a career-high 91 percent shooting night as the Nets were the Globetrotters to the Hawks’ Washington Generals in a 108-86 win.
He hit 10 of 11 shots from the floor, easily getting to his spots, easily rising up and shooting over a struggling Hawks defense that at least serves as a lead-in before games against Utah, Philadelphia (twice), Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Lakers.
It was even a little surprising to see Irving on the floor, considering events in the last week or so. There was no strong indication Irving’s bothersome right shoulder injury would recover so quickly, as speculation ranged across the board when he’d emerge back to the lineup, if at all this season.
The injury, the treatment and the timeline all seemed to be shrouded in mystery, par for the course considering it’s Irving.
“It was a long way back, a lot of questions I had to answer about my shoulder, longevity,” Irving said. “Once I got that foundation set, it was easy to come back.”
He played in perfect pitch with his teammates and didn’t force the action — an expectation for any star player returning after an extended absence and even more for Irving, who scored 21. Before his injury, he was averaging career highs in points (28.5), assists (7.2) and rebounds (5.4) — and even his PER was a career-high 25.7.
“Every time someone asks about chemistry, you gotta have reps,” Irving said. “But when you’re a great basketball player, a great basketball mind, you can play with anyone on the floor. You can adjust.”
“Normally when you come back after a long time, your rhythm is off, you’re going too fast or too slow,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “He had a nice demeanor and rhythm about him. Adding a player of his caliber helps your confidence — we had a certain confidence about us tonight that we were missing during our [losing] streak.”
Irving was even self-deprecating about his résumé when it comes to the notion that teams featuring him play better when he’s either hurt or out of town. Unable to resist the urge to take a shot, after the game Irving said, “I'm not going to be petty, but there's been a lot of things said about what I bring to the locker room.
“I’m going to continue to be me ... teaching guys and giving them positive encouragement when needed, pulling guys aside, making sure we have team outings and [be] on the same page.”
How much the Nets missed Irving is hard to evaluate, but the seven-game losing streak that was only recently snapped by a comeback win over the Miami Heat on Friday counts as evidence he at least will raise the team’s ceiling.
“I definitely think it makes us more talented,” Spencer Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “We’re not the eighth seed. We don’t have that seven-game losing streak without him. But I understand if you say it doesn’t make us Milwaukee. But any game on any night, we feel with the talent we have, we feel we can play with that team, be it the Bucks or the Lakers.”
They went 13-13 without him and at 18-20 sit seventh in the Eastern Conference. The team he left two months ago isn’t the team he rejoined, which learned to play without him by necessity.
“It’s a whole new team [but] it’s not starting from scratch. It evolves,” Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “Things change. That’s how the NBA is. It’s not gonna stop for anybody, no matter who gets hurt. The games will still be played. You gotta continue to shift and go.”
Dinwiddie took full advantage of extended play and opportunities, boosting himself into All-Star consideration by averaging 24.8 points and 7.2 assists during the 26 games Irving was out. How Atkinson juggles Irving, Dinwiddie and recently returning Caris LeVert will be among his biggest challenges left in the season.
Dinwiddie, though, isn’t looking at Irving’s comeback as an impediment to his development. It helps the two are friends, dating back to before they were teammates in Brooklyn.
“I’d rather average 21 and win at a high level [compared to] 25 and getting my head cracked every night,” Dinwiddie told Yahoo Sports. “I don’t view his coming back as, ‘Now I’m gonna average two points a game.’ I’ll still be productive. It gives our group a chance to win a lot more games.”
Irving famously cautioned the media on putting pressure on Kevin Durant to return, saying he would protect Durant from the outside expectations. Now the tables have turned, and perhaps Irving’s teammates will have to protect him from wanting to be the savior.
“I think that’s the job of our group,” Dinwiddie said. “As teammates, we should watch out for each other and make sure he doesn’t do anything contrary to his health. We understand who he is, so we’re pre-adjusted. We want to see the best for him. We were just holding down the fort for him.”
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