Rust, brilliance, drama: Kyrie Irving’s first game back had it all and it’s only the beginning

Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets
Jan 5, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) shoots the ball while Indiana Pacers forward Oshae Brissett (12) defends in the second half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

There were flashes of brilliance, flashes of rust, and plenty of drama in Kyrie Irving’s season debut on Wednesday in Indiana. In the end, Irving showed why the Nets are taking the risk to bring him back on a part-time basis.

It took some time, but Irving got where he needed to be against the Pacers. He put up 22 points in 32 minutes — two more minutes than head coach Steve Nash had earmarked Irving to play — while helping to lead the Nets back from a 19-point hole they put themselves in during the second half.

Irving dropped 14 points in the final 13 minutes of the game, which included a buzzer-beating jump shot to end the third quarter. He knocked down a pair of pull-up jump shots in the fourth after Patty Mills’ go-ahead three-pointer with 7:23 left in the game.

“It was amazing to have him out there,” Kevin Durant said. “I just missed his presence around the locker room. His energy, his vibe around the team… his game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody out there. It was amazing to see him out on the floor again. … Just the game of basketball is happy to have him back.

“He made the game so much more difficult for the Pacers.”

James Harden added: “He looked like Kyrie.”

The end wasn’t exactly how the evening started for Irving, who admitted that there were some nerves when he took his first shot of the night. Nash drew up a play to allow the Nets superstar to take the game’s first shot, which the Brooklyn coach described as a “welcome back gift.”

Irving missed his first three shots of the game and picked up his first points of the season a minute into the second quarter. He had eight points in the first 24 minutes on Wednesday night.

“I think in the first possession when I shot that shot I was so caught up in just making my first two points,” Irving said. “I was so nervous, and naturally, as a performer I still get nervous. That first shot, man, I wanted that to go in and then I settled down closer to the second half. Once I came back out and said ‘whatever is needed out there I’m just going to do.’ I knew everyone is going to follow suit like they’ve been doing all season.”

Now the whacky part to all this begins.

With Irving’s debut out of the way, he won’t be able to play until next week when the Nets hit the road to play Portland and Chicago. Irving’s unvaccinated status prevents him from playing in any games in the five boroughs or in Toronto.

[READ: Kyrie Irving talks vaccination status following win over Pacers]

Now that Irving has shown flashes of that elite level he has to his game, everyone will be watching to see how the Nets deal with essentially two different lineups at home and on the road. And then what happens come playoffs for Irving and the Nets?

Brooklyn’s goal — as is Irving’s — is to win a championship this season. The Nets will be in a unique situation if one of their most dynamic players cannot be in the lineup for some games at the most important time of the year.

The Nets had dropped three straight games before Wednesday’s win over the Pacers. It looked as though the Nets were about the drop their fourth consecutive game before the second-half comeback.

It was a reminder to Irving and the Nets challenges that already face Brooklyn before adding on unique circumstances surrounding Irving’s eligibility.

“In this league, anybody can be beat on any given night,” Irving said. “We have that target on our back. We’re 1-2 in the East and we have aspirations to be playing later in the postseason. I just think us settling in as a team and being honest with one another out there, it helps. That’s what we have all across the board when you look at our team.”