NEW YORK -- After the Brooklyn Nets locked up the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 134-126 win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, Kyrie Irving smiled as he discussed the impact the play-in tournament has had on the NBA since its inception last season.
"I think somebody's in the back room hip-hip hooraying whoever created the play-in tournament," Irving said after going 15-for-20 from the field and scoring 35 points in Sunday's regular-season finale. "Because last year you get Steph [Curry] and LeBron [James], this year you get me and KD going against the Cavs in the play-in game. And then you have in the Western Conference, Minnesota and the Clippers. So I guess somebody's in the back room saying this works."
With the win, Brooklyn was able to leapfrog Cleveland for the seventh seed, earning a home game against the Cavs at Barclays Center on Tuesday night in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game. After playing in the biggest games the league has to offer through the years, Irving is looking forward to his first play-in experience.
"As a competitor, it feels like one of those Game 6s, Game 5s, Game 7s, where it's a must-win and you know that the ball's going to be tipped and it's not really going to depend on anything other than will, skill, how well you're prepared, physicality, how well you know the other team's offensive schemes ...
"You just don't know what can happen in games like that -- you just got to prepare for anything that can happen and really come in with a fearless attitude going against another great team. So I'm looking forward to it."
Nets star Kevin Durant, who will also be playing in the first play-in game of his storied career, said he didn't really have strong feelings either way about the tournament -- while noting he believes fans like it.
"It depends on how the games are," Durant said when asked if it was good for the league. "The format and the playoffs, all that stuff don't really matter. It's about the product on the court and players on the floor. And I'm sure it will be some good basketball out there with the talent we have in this league."
While Durant didn't shoot the ball the way he would have liked on Sunday, going just 5-for-17 from the field, he was able to rack up another triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high 16 assists. Irving said after the game he told Durant was "PG from PG County." Durant took all the accolades in stride.
"Last game, a few of my friends are like, 'Yo, you started shooting one-leg shots.'" Durant said. "I'm like, 'Where the f---, where y'all been?' So that's how I feel about my passing, too. A lot of people either focus just on my scoring or haven't really focused on me at all as a player. So I expect to come out there and make the right reads and get my teammates good looks, so it's nothing new to me."
After all the ups and downs this season has provided for the Nets, both the players and coaches are looking forward to what they hope will be a long playoff journey starting on Tuesday -- especially Irving. After dealing with a variety of different issues over the past three seasons -- including shoulder and knee problems in 2019 and 2020, ankle issues last season and his decision not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Irving has not been on the floor as much as he would have liked.
"To be honest with you, I feel like I haven't had the last three seasons that I've wanted," Irving said. "From the bubble, to getting injured in the second round [against Milwaukee in 2021] and then this year. For me, being 27 years old and now being 30 -- I feel like the last three seasons for me, I've only had glimpses of kind of my own expectations of where I wanted to land. Last year, it felt like I took leaps and bounds offensively and defensively and then this year I wanted to continue on with that."
The Nets will be facing a Cavs team they just beat 118-107 on Friday night. The loser of Tuesday's game will have one more chance to qualify for the postseason -- playing the winner of Wednesday's No. 9 Atlanta Hawks/No. 10 Charlotte Hornets game at home on Friday night.
"As I get ready for Tuesday, I'm glad that I get the day or a few hours to reflect and think about what has transpired in this journey," Irving said. "I'm very appreciative and grateful. I don't want to take anything for granted. I don't want to say I have any regrets and let the past be where it's at, move forward with a clean focus and move together with some guys that really enjoy playing the game of basketball and live with the results on Tuesday -- but we're going to come out ready to play."