In his much anticipated season debut, Kyrie Irving, who hasn't played in an NBA game since last June, could've let his adrenaline get the best of him on Wednesday night in Indiana. He didn't. He was patient, poised, and allowed the game, as they say, to come to him. Once it did, he looked every bit like the player we all remember.
Irving finished with 22 points, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter, as the Nets rallied from a 19-point deficit to defeat the Pacers 129-121. He shot 9-for-16 from the field and was a plus-16 for the game, highest among Brooklyn's starters.
The way the game started, Irving was shaping up to be an easy scapegoat. The low-hanging headline would've written itself: Irving returns, and Brooklyn's defense goes in the tank. The Nets gave 73 points in the first half as Lance Stephenson looked like Michael Jordan.
But Brooklyn buckled down in the second half, holding Indiana to 20 fourth-quarter points with tighter rotations and a noticeable uptick in energy and activity. Kevin Durant was superb all night, finishing with 39 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and it surely helped having Irving out there as an additional spacer.
In fact, let's keep with the theme of Brooklyn's spacing, which been suboptimal for most of the season. The Nets entered the game making just 11.4 3-pointers per game, the sixth-lowest mark in the league. Joe Harris has only played in 14 games. James Harden, throughout the early part of the season, wasn't anywhere near the player we've seen in the past. In general, Steve Nash has been forced to choose between defense-oriented lineups that can't shoot or floor-spacing lineups that can't defend.
Patty Mills is having a terrific season but there just hasn't been enough shooting on this roster to give defenses any reason to stay attached on the perimeter. Durant, as a result, has been operating in sardine-cramped quarters all season, making his scoring and shooting splits all the more impressive. Harden not getting into the lane and as easily as we've come to expect was, in part, due to this same space squeeze.
With Irving on the floor, that all changes. As a defense, accounting for three elite shooters/scorers is a much different deal than just two, or even one and a half back when Harden's game was off. It's going to help all three stars get their shots with less hassle, and on Wednesday we saw plenty of examples of this.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Durant and Harden spaced to one side, and Mills and DeAndre' Bembry -- who was brilliant all night with 12 points on 5-for-5 shooting -- on the other, Irving found himself one-on-one at the top with nary a single Pacers defender in the paint because every shooter had to be accounted for. You can see Harden has dragged his defender all the way out to the near sideline. You give Kyrie this kind of space with only one defender in front of him, forget about it.
Earlier in the fourth, it was Durant spaced in the left corner and Harden on the right wing with Kyrie isolated up top. Now it's picking your poison. If one of those defenders helps on Kyrie's drive, he makes an easy pass to a shooter for a 3. If both defenders stay attached to Durant and Harden, as they do here, Kyrie is left to operate one-on-one in a sea of space.
Kyrie is also a spacer himself. Here, Durant has Mills on his left and Harden and Irving on his right with nothing but open runway in front of him. Easy money.
Late in the game, it's the attention all three stars garner that nets Bembry a wide-open layup. With Irving spaced in the left corner, and Mills running his man through a maze, two defenders are out of the play. Durant and Bembry set consecutive ball screens for Harden. That leaves three defenders in play. One goes to Durant, two go to Harden, and nobody is left for Bembry.
This is the Irving effect. With Durant and Harden, you can manage as a defense. But with a third elite shooter/scorer, you can't stay attached to them all. You have to make choices. Who do you stay with and who do you leave? There won't be a good answer, and that's when Brooklyn becomes undefendable.
Unfortunately, it's not going to be like this every night. Remember, Irving can only play in road games as an unvaccinated player in the state of New York. If he plays every game in which he's eligible for the remainder of the regular season, the Nets will have him active 21 more times prior to the playoffs. They'll cherish those opportunities, but they still have to play without him plenty. On the nights when they do have Irving, you can see how much easier he makes things on his teammates, and vice versa.