MILWAUKEE -- Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving said he can finally see "light at the end of the tunnel" after playing the best game of his truncated season in Saturday's surprising 126-123 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Irving scored a season-high 38 points to lead his undermanned team down the stretch against the defending NBA champions. Afterward, he acknowledged the possibility of New York City ending the vaccination mandate that has kept him off Brooklyn's Barclays Center floor all season, saying he is looking forward to "turning the page."
"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 Barclays 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."
Irving's comments are his first since New York City Mayor Eric Adams told reporters earlier in the week that he "can't wait to get it done" while discussing phasing out vaccination restrictions like other cities across the country.
On Sunday, Adams tweeted that as long as COVID-19 numbers continue to decrease, the city is looking at March 7 as the date to remove vaccination requirements for "indoor dining, fitness and entertainment venues." Adams said in his official statement, however, that, "All other vaccine mandates in New York City will remain in place at this time as they are, and have been, vital to protecting New Yorkers." That means Irving would still not be able to play at the Barclays Center on March 7 as the city's vaccine mandate for in-person workers remains in effect.
"I'm following it as much as you guys are," Irving said. "So just remaining patient and just seeing where things end up in this next week or so, next two weeks, I'm not too sure, but I know as much as you do. And I want to say this -- is that I'm very appreciative of all those that are pushing behind the scenes to make our world a better place.
"And with everything calming down with the COVID cases, the most important thing for me was just making sure everyone's OK. I've been on record saying this that it's not about me, that I don't want to feel like it's all on me, but the circumstances this year have not been ideal."
Irving also said he appreciated NBA commissioner Adam Silver's recent comments on ESPN's Get Up, where Silver defended Irving while noting that the mandate "doesn't quite make sense to me," given that unvaccinated players from opposing teams could still play in New York City.
"I know his job is not easy," Irving said. "Standing in the fire, sometimes, on behalf of our league. So my respect level went to a whole new one for him, and I'm just grateful that he did that, and he really took one for the team. And I'm grateful for that. But like I said, we want to set a great example for the world in what we're doing, and we try to stand for what's right and respect everyone else's decisions and their personal beliefs."
On top of Irving's status, what makes the Nets so hopeful with just 21 regular-season games left to play is that star forward Kevin Durant is expected to return this week from a sprained left MCL after missing 1½ months. New addition Ben Simmons also is expected to be available in the near future as he ramps up his conditioning after waiting to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers, although Nets coach Steve Nash said Saturday that Simmons was dealing with "a little soreness in his back."
Irving said the win in Milwaukee was even more special given that he injured his right ankle in Game 4 of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks, prematurely ending his season.
"It was definitely emotional for me to prepare for this game," Irving said. "Just because -- I haven't been back in this building since then. I try my best not to wear my emotions on my face or on my shoulders, but sometimes, they can get the best of me. But it definitely felt like there was a weight lifted just being back here, being healthy, getting a win and knowing that there's a possibility we could see them down the line again ... there was nothing personal about this game, just about the team."
Nash was effusive in his praise for Irving after Saturday's triumph.
"I thought Kyrie was amazing," Nash said. "He was incredible shot-making, carried a big portion of our offense. I think [he] just allows other guys more space to breathe. So it improves the whole team with his presence, shot-making and creativity."
Veteran guard Goran Dragic, who made his Nets debut on Saturday and scored six points in 14 minutes, put into perspective what it's like to play with Irving.
"When you watch Kyrie, it feels like he's in a video game," Dragic said. "It's just crazy how he moves and how he's making those tough shots. We were just talking on the bench how it's a great win for us, but when we get KD back and Simmons and those guys, those guys can score the ball, they defend, so it's going to be a totally different team."