SALT LAKE CITY -- The most impressive part of Kyrie Irving's 48-point performance Friday night actually came about an hour after he carried the Brooklyn Nets to a much-needed 117-106 win over the Utah Jazz.
In the midst of describing the most defining game of Irving's season, a reporter prefaced a question about the team's expectations in the wake of Kevin Durant's absence, noting that it was probably an unrealistic expectation to think Irving would go off for close to 50 every night. Before the question was even finished, Irving interjected his own answer.
"I don't think it's an unrealistic expectation," he said, confidently.
Part of the beauty, and mystique, of Irving's ability on a basketball court centers around the confidence he brings with him to the floor each night. No matter the circumstances, no matter who his teammates might be on a given night, he always believes he'll be able to deliver. That hasn't always been the case during the Nets' four-game losing streak, but it was on Friday.
Irving finished with a season high in points, while also chipping in with 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals in 39 minutes, on the second night of a back-to-back. As the Nets continue to play without Durant over the next few weeks while he rehabs an MCL injury in his right knee, Irving has taken the responsibility of leadership seriously for a struggling group that looks up to him.
"Every night I try to put myself in that place, in that zone," Irving said. "Specifically in the fourth quarter when it's winning time. But I just think the way we started off the game really made a difference tonight and then the way we finished, I felt like we grew as a squad."
The Nets, who have struggled to find offensive rhythm without Durant, needed every bit of Irving's shooting magic, including the two clutch 3s he hit in the final two minutes to help close the game. After scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter of Thursday's loss to the Phoenix Suns, Irving followed that with 21 more in Friday's fourth quarter against the Jazz.
"[Thursday] night, I'm really observing out there on the court and just watching him," Nets big man Nic Claxton said. "It's like he's in a different world. He's locked in. He's in a different type of zone. And he makes those big shots time and time again. And we just watch it and don't take it for granted, just having a guy that can create shots from all three levels the way he can."
"That's what he does," Nets swingman Royce O'Neale added. "He's been doing it all year. Right now he's leading us and we're following his lead. We're trusting him, he's trusting us so just to see him go off like that is always special."
When the Nets needed their dynamic point guard to rise to the challenge Friday, he delivered. In the process, he helped lift the spirits of his team and make them believe they can win without Durant.
"I thought you saw from him throughout the course of the night just different segments of the game where he really put his imprint on what we were trying to do offensively," Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said. "And it paid dividends, especially in the fourth quarter."
Irving noted how "proud" he was of the group and how much he appreciated a teammate like Seth Curry hitting crucial shots late in the game. Irving also noted that he feels he has a strong enough connection with Vaughn to be able to take over when needed.
"I have the trust through Jacque to be able to make plays down the stretch," Irving said. "And he comes to me and we talk about it, I think we've been able to develop a dialogue, it continues to grow game to game, so it gives me a lot of confidence in the fourth quarter to be able to perform that way.
"And my teammates looking to me as well, and when the ball's feeling good in my hands you just want to get a great shot, that's better for our team."
As the Nets look ahead, they still have a tough road without Durant, especially over the next two games with road showdowns against the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers. Irving has a great deal of respect for Warriors star guard Stephen Curry and is looking forward to the challenge Sunday's matchup provides, but he pushed back the focus to his teammates and the growth he feels is taking place in this moment when the Nets are forced to find different ways to win without Durant.
"It's a team attitude that I'm having coming into Sunday," Irving said. "That's really the foundation of us growing throughout this process right now we're in. Me getting out of my own way and allowing the other guys to help and taking this journey day by day.
"So the ups and downs are going to come and go, but we just have to stay poised and stay consistent and it starts with me showing up every day and leading by example and just putting my body on the line and doing whatever it takes to win."