Kyrie Irving lifted the Nets in a triumphant return to the court — and now the awkward part begins

Kyrie Irving lifted the Nets in a triumphant return to the court — and now the awkward part begins
Kyrie Irving made his season debut on Wednesday and dazzled.Darron Cummings/AP Images
  • Kyrie Irving played his first game with the Nets on Wednesday and dazzled in a win.
  • Irving can't play home games because he's unvaccinated, so he will miss the Nets next two games.

Kyrie Irving returned to the floor on Wednesday and again showed why he is one of the NBA's elite talents.

Until Wednesday, he had missed all of the Brooklyn Nets' previous 35 games and had not played an NBA game since June 13 because he refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Due to New York City's mandates, Irving cannot play home games in Brooklyn, and the Nets previously denied him from playing road games, saying they wanted him to be a full-time participant.

However, with COVID-19 ravaging the roster and the Nets superstars pressuring management, the team reversed course in December, allowing Irving to join them for games outside of New York.

Irving dazzled, showing little rust from a seven-month layoff. The 29-year-old guard scored 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting, injecting energy into a Nets team that looked disinterested against an under-manned Indiana Pacers squad. Irving scored 14 of his 22 points in the second half, and his pace, relentless attacks, and crafty moves inspired Brooklyn to mount a comeback and beat the Pacers, 129-121.

The Nets are now without Kyrie again for a few days

However, the Nets will only have one day to bask in the glory of Irving's return.


Irving still cannot play in Brooklyn. The Nets are returning home for two games, where they will be without Irving. They then go back on the road for two away games, followed by two more home games.

Irving can play in just 21 of the remaining regular-season games — he can't play road games against the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors due to similar vaccine mandates.

It's an unprecedented situation and an awkward one, leaving the Nets to essentially play with two teams — the Irving version and the non-Irving version. It will leave Nets head coach Steve Nash constantly adjusting starting lineups and rotations to accommodate Irving's part-time role.

Kyrie Irving lifted the Nets in a triumphant return to the court — and now the awkward part begins
Kyrie Irving's part-time role will force Steve Nash to constantly tinker with lineups.Adam Hunger/AP Images

Thus far, the non-Irving Nets have been good but not terribly impressive. The Nets went 23-12 without Irving, a solid record, though it has included a few baffling losses to lowly teams and more concerning losses to other contenders.

Kevin Durant has turned in an MVP-caliber season but is also carrying a heavy load, playing his most minutes per game since 2013-14. James Harden has thus far been subpar by his own lofty standards, though he has recently shown glimpses of turning it around.


On Wednesday, the Irving Nets weren't exactly impressive — they trailed most of the game and allowed a Pacers squad missing several rotation players to shoot 62% in the first half — but they showed the power of their star trio. Over nine minutes from the end of the third quarter to midway through the fourth, the Nets outscored the Pacers 30-8, with Irving and Durant combining for 14 points and 3 assists.

Such is the power of having three superstars — at any moment, one or two of them can go off and bring the Nets back into a game.

Of course, Irving's status for the playoffs will be hanging over the season. Barring a change to New York City's mandates, Irving won't be available to play home games in the postseason. The scenario on everyone's mind is what happens if the Nets play a Game 7 in Brooklyn and Irving can't play.

While it's Irving's choice to remain unvaccinated, this is also a situation the Nets have allowed. As The Athletic's Joe Vardon put it, the Nets "decided a little bit of Kyrie is better than none at all" this season. They are perhaps hoping that giving Irving a taste of basketball will convince him to get vaccinated and return to the team on a full-time basis.

After Wednesday's game, Irving gave no indications that he plans to get vaccinated. Asked about the future, Irving mostly deflected.


"I'm just taking it one day at a time," Irving said. "Like I said earlier in the season, it's not an ideal situation, and I'm always praying that things get figured out, and we're able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or it's just things that's going on that could help kind of ease what we're all dealing with COVID-19 and the vaccine."

For now, the Nets will play with Irving again on January 10 and 11, followed by a five-day break, then again for a four-game road trip. Until Irving decides to end the awkwardness, he'll continue to tantalize the Nets with what they could be.