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Irving returns as Nets end three-game slide

Previously exiled point guard fuels late comeback in Indy

January 5, 2022 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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Kyrie Irving’s much-anticipated return was almost as impressive as the Brooklyn Nets’ comeback in Indiana Wednesday night.

The previously exiled point guard scored 22 points and keyed a furious second-half rally as the Nets ended a season-high three-game losing streak with a 129-121 victory over the Pacers in front of 14,176 fans at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Irving, who has been out since last year’s playoffs due to his lack of adherence to New York City’s vaccination mandate at Downtown’s Barclays Center, missed his first three shots before rediscovering the form that made him one of Brooklyn’s Big Three.

The mercurial playmaker finished 9-of-17 from the floor, 4-of-4 at the free-throw line and handed out four assists in 32 minutes.

“Looks like himself. Not a big surprise,” Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash said of Irving. “He’s so gifted and talented and you could see the rhythm was there.”

His fellow superstars appeared inspired by Irving’s return.

Kevin Durant scored a game-high 39 points and James Harden added 18 for the Nets (24-12), who improved to a league-best 14-3 on the road this season and won their sixth consecutive visit to Indiana.

“He didn’t act nervous, he has a nice poker face,” Durant said of Irving. “He’s a quiet guy. He plays with energy and passion.”

Kevin Durant padded his lead as the NBA’s leading scorer with a game-high 39 points in Indiana Wednesday night. AP Photo by Darron Cummings

Down by as many as 19 points early, Brooklyn began closing the gap in the third quarter before outscoring the Pacers (14-25) by a 35-20 margin over the final 12 minutes.

Irving drilled a buzzer beater to close out the third quarter as the Nets crawled within 101-94.

Patty Mills’ 3-pointer with 7:23 remaining in regulation put Brooklyn in front to stay, 107-106. Irving followed with back-to-back baskets to extend the advantage to five points as the Nets cruised to victory thereafter.

“It came down to defense and effort, and second half was night and day to the first,” Nash said. “It took us getting in a deep hole before we showed them the respect the game and them the respect they deserved.”

Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis scored 32 points and Brooklyn native and Lincoln High School legend Lance Stephenson added 30, all but 10 of which came during a scintillating first-quarter performance.

LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed Monday’s home loss to Memphis with a sore right foot, finished with 13 points off the bench and Nic Claxton added 12 for the Nets, who will return home Friday to host the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Lincoln High School legend Lance Stephenson torched Brooklyn for 30 points Wednesday, but the Nets still rallied past the Pacers. AP Photo by Darron Cummings

Brooklyn will welcome the San Antonio Spurs to Barclays on Sunday, but Irving will again be ineligible to play with the Nets during the two-game homestand as he still has not received a vaccination shot.

He will be back in action Monday night when the Nets go to Portland to make up a previously postponed contest and will also be ready to go next Wednesday night in Chicago.

But for now, Irving is content to be back with his teammates and part of a unit that has championship aspirations.

“This meant a little more, taking eight months off and so much uncertainty,” he said. “I settled down closer to the second half. Whatever the team (needs), I’ll do.”

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