Kevin Durant: Brooklyn Nets relieved to have vaccine mandate behind them as Kyrie Irving readies for home debut

MIAMI -- Kyrie Irving is finally allowed to play at home games inside Barclays Center and the Brooklyn Nets couldn't be happier about it.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced Thursday that the mandate for unvaccinated athletes and performers has been lifted, clearing the way for Irving, who hasn't been able to play in the city all season, to make his home debut Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets.

"It's a long time coming," Nets star forward Kevin Durant said. "It's an exciting time for Brooklyn Nets fans and New York fans to see one of our own back on the floor at home. It means a lot to our team, happy to have him back, and look forward to finishing the season strong. I'm glad this is all behind us."

After saying Wednesday how much he was looking forward to speaking to the media once the mandate had been lifted, Irving declined to comment to reporters after practice Friday. Durant spoke for many within the organization Friday saying he was happy to not have to deal with the questions about Irving's decision anymore, while acknowledging that the push the New York Yankees and New York Mets made toward Adams and the city helped the Nets get their star guard back on the floor full-time.

"There's no crying over spilled milk. It is what it is," Durant said of the way things have played out this season. "But I'm not naive to the fact that the Mets and the Yankees, they have a lot of power in our city. I'm sure once they all helped and had conversations with whoever they needed to talk to, it was able to push it over the top. So sports is a huge factor in a lot of these major cities and I'm glad we can get things done for everybody to move forward. I know New York City fans are excited about it."

The saga surrounding Irving and his decision not to get vaccinated has hovered over everything the Nets have done this season. Originally, the organization decided before the season it did not want him as just a part-time player, but it reversed course after a COVID outbreak ravaged the team in December and welcomed Irving back on a part-time basis in early January. Irving, who turned 30 on Wednesday, wore a big smile on his face as he walked out of FedEx Forum in Memphis, but Durant said there wasn't a big celebration within the team after Adams lifted the mandate.

"Kyrie is pretty much level mentality regardless of the situation," Durant said. "And approaches it the same. He came in and not a change in emotion for him. He knew this day was going to come. He just was patient. We all were, and we can move on. ... I'm glad we don't have to talk about it no more -- it's good that we can eliminate something as huge as this whole thing that was lingering around our head for the whole year. I'm glad we can move on."

Like many within the organization, Durant, who called out Adams by name after a March 13 win over the New York Knicks, said he got his hopes up as he watched reports over the last month saying there was a chance the mandate could get rolled back, but "stopped listening to the rumors and reports" in recent weeks as Irving's return stalled.

"It's great for continuity," Durant said. "Great to know that coming off the road, we don't have to worry about adjusting our lineups or our game plans based off of Kyrie not being there, so hopefully on Sunday we get even more energy from our fan base and help us get that W, so I'm looking forward to it."

Nets coach Steve Nash offered a similar sentiment, saying he was looking forward to getting his rotations in order heading into postseason basketball. The Nets come into their Saturday matchup against the Miami Heat in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings -- with nine regular-season games left to play.

"It'd be great if there's a lift," Nash said of the emotional boost Irving's full-time return could have. "For me, I'm really just interested in the time playing together, getting a chance to work and play regularly and start to find some combinations and rotations that make sense for us going into the playoffs."

Durant acknowledged that the situation is strange given that the mandate is still in place for many New Yorkers, but the Nets are catching a break because of Adams' decision regarding athletes and performers.

"All of it's weird," Durant said. "COVID's weird. It just came out of nowhere. How we reacted to COVID -- it's not the perfect situation for anybody. It's crazy that people lost their jobs based off of a vaccine and people that stood on what they believed in, waited this process out when -- now they're able to work. It's a weird situation.

"Nobody is a winner in none of this stuff. I think everybody is trying to figure it out as we go. I think we've been doing a solid job of just trying to understand all of this."