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Kyrie Irving hadn't played a home game at Barclays Center since Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, but after spending the bulk of the season held out because of a New York City vaccine mandate, Irving returned to the Nets in Brooklyn on Sunday after Mayor Eric Adams created an exception to that mandate allowing unvaccinated athletes to play. The result was underwhelming.

Irving shot 6-of-22 from the field, including a 2-of-16 start, on his way to just 16 points in a 119-110 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. The defeat had significant playoff implications for a Nets team still fighting for seeding. Charlotte's victory pulled the Hornets into a tie with the Nets for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte, by virtue of its 2-1 record against Brooklyn this season, has secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Nets will have to outplay the Hornets down the stretch to avoid falling to No. 9. If they do, they would need to win two play-in games, including one on the road, just to make the playoffs. The Nets and Hornets trail the No. 7-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers by 2.5 games with seven to play.

The end result was hardly the story, though. After missing the bulk of Brooklyn's home games throughout the season, Irving's mere presence is what matters to the Nets. If they can just sneak into the postseason, having him, Kevin Durant and possibly Ben Simmons would make the Nets one of the most dangerous teams in the field. Even if they don't make it, Irving stands by his decision. As he explained, his decision was about freedom. 

"I made it very clear it was never just about me," he said. "You know, I think from our legacy that's to be read by all those that I impact and all those that impact me, and it's far bigger than just the basketball game but when I'm in this locker room, I get a chance to perform with a bunch of guys that are selfless in our sacrifices just most of the time. You know, it makes it worthwhile. And that's the only thing I've really focused on is the now, get back ready for the next game and just go from there but the point of this season for me was never to just take a stand. It was really to make sure that I'm standing on what I believe in: Freedom. 

"Freedom, I don't think that's a word that gets defined enough in our society, about the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the f*** to do and whether that carries over to nuances of our society that politicians control, the government controls, or things people who are in power -- the powers that may be.

"So that's in all facets of my life. And there's nobody that's enslaved me, there's nobody telling me what I'm going to do with my life. And that's just the way I am. If I get tarnished, you know, in terms of my image and people try to slander my name continuously because, you know, those aren't things that I forget. You know, I haven't forgotten anything that anybody said. I read everything, but I definitely read some things that put my family's name in a certain position that I believe right there. 

'I've been discriminated against. You know, people have said things that have been biased, they've gone against their own morals, and where we live in today, I have such a strong moral code of just being honest, being truthful, following God's guidance and living with the results. But in terms of that, that's selfless. I'm a servant. So I'm in that position."

With Irving back on the floor full-time, the focus will now turn back to basketball. The Nets have only a few weeks to secure their place in the postseason, and with their star point guard back in the fold, they'll have a chance to do just that.