INDIANAPOLIS -- Kyrie Irving provided the emotional lift the Brooklyn Nets were hoping to see in his season debut Wednesday night in a 129-121 win over the Indiana Pacers.
Not only did Irving show flashes of his old form, posting 22 points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes, he offered a reminder of just how dangerous the Nets can be when he shares the floor with Kevin Durant and James Harden. With Irving hitting several crucial baskets down the stretch, the Nets erased what was a 19-point Pacers lead on their way to the win.
After it was over, Irving admitted having some nerves in his return but said he was just happy to be on the floor after missing the first three months of the year.
"Just a lot of gratitude just to be present tonight with everyone," Irving said. "Just go out there and have fun doing what we love to do. It was a not-so-good first half for us, and we came in the locker room and we knew that in order to build this identity that we want to have later in the season we got to start now."
Irving, who isn't vaccinated against COVID-19, making him ineligible to play in home games because of New York City's vaccine mandate, wasn't on the floor to start the season because the Nets decided before the season that they didn't want to have a part-time player. However, after a COVID-19 outbreak decimated the Nets' roster, the decision was made to allow Irving to rejoin the team as a player who could participate only in road games.
After Wednesday's game, Irving was asked if his stance on getting the vaccine could change in the future.
"Man, I'm just taking it one day at a time," he said. "Like I said earlier in the season, it's not an ideal situation and I'm always praying that things get figured out and we're able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or it's just things that's going on that could help kind of ease what we're all dealing with COVID-19 and the vaccine.
"I think everybody's feeling it, so I don't want to make it simply about me and someone lessening the rules for me. I know what the consequences were, I still know what they are, but right now I'm just going to take it one day at a time like I said and just enjoy this time I get to play with my guys. And however it looks later in the season, then we'll address it then."
Before getting up from the podium, Irvin smiled when asked if that meant getting vaccinated was still a possibility.
"Oh come on, man," Irving said. "Don't hang onto me."
With Irving back on the court Wednesday night, the Nets' offense looked dynamic at times again with so many All-Stars on the floor.
Durant, who scored a game-high 39 points, said it was "incredible" to have Irving back.
"It was amazing to have him out there," Durant said. "I just missed his presence around the locker room, his energy, his vibe around the team. And then his game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody out there. It was amazing to see him out on the floor again.
"The crowd showed him so much love, teammates, just the game of basketball is happy to have him back. He made the game so much more difficult for the Pacers, giving us a different attack, especially in the fourth quarter. We'll just keep building on this."
Irving showed a little early rust in the first quarter, going 0-for-3 from the field with two turnovers, but he settled in and started to find a rhythm.
Harden said he knows it's going to take a little more time for the Nets to come together with Irving back in the fold, but the sense of belief Irving brought back to the floor was palpable.
"It's special," Harden said. "It felt like he's been playing all season. He looked comfortable as usual, his pace, his rhythm. It looked like Kyrie."
Several players and coaches echoed that sentiment after watching Irving go back to work. Irving's next game will be next Monday in Portland, in a game that was originally scheduled to be played on Dec. 23 but had to be postponed because the Nets were dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.
Nets coach Steve Nash said he is hopeful he can keep ramping up Irving's minutes as the Nets look to maintain the momentum they found in the fourth quarter, when Irving had 10 points and helped the Nets outscore the Pacers 35-20.
"He looks like himself," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "Not a big surprise watching him play in practice -- he's so gifted and talented and you could see the rhythm was there, but it's still an adaptation so we got to give him some space here as he transitions back to playing, but tonight he was big."