The game was not over, but the bow was almost tied. Washington went up by 11 points with 10 and a half minutes left on Monday when Nick Claxton beat Will Barton. The ball and Kyrie Irving made their way to the sideline, where Irving jumped, grabbed the ball and lifted it over his head as it crashed into the stands.
During a season where Irving has faced questions about his beliefs, priorities and desires, and throughout his tenure with the Nets, there’s no doubting what he’s brought to the team lately.
“He’s very busy,” head coach Jacques Vaughan said Wednesday.
The Nets’ growth in play has come as the team gets healthier, becomes more familiar with Vaughn’s style, and feasts on fewer opponents. But the Nets have won four in a row and won eight of their last nine, with Irving rushing, diving, driving and shooting like a star. showed a return to the rikchi.
Since Irving returned from an eight-game suspension after sharing a video on social media that featured anti-Semitic tropes, the Nets are 10-3 and Irving has looked more comfortable with each game.
Rarely has the focus been on the court since Irving joined the team in 2019 — and Irving’s body has been on the court more often than not.
“Jacques made it very clear that if you don’t play enough, you can hear about it,” Irving said after scoring 24 points on 17 shots in Monday’s win. “We’ve got guys on the bench that are willing to go out there and do things like that. It encourages you to make the most of your time there.”
For the guard, this means sacrificing his body and attacking at any opening. Through a hot, cold and strange first 15 games of the season — punctuated by a suspension after he initially refused to say he held anti-Semitic beliefs — Irving may have settled in too often.
He averaged 8.4 3-point attempts in October and November and shot just 32.5 percent from deep. Since the start of December, he’s been cutting down threes, averaging 7.2 3s in five games, relying more on his dribble penetration.
Irving is averaging 11.2 drives per game this month, compared to an average of 9.6 in October and November. On Monday, one of the most gifted ball handlers put on a clinic of steps, hesitations, flicks of fingers and creating space where none existed.
“DECEPTION!” Nets owner Joe Tsai tweeted about Irving’s top and bottom — the same account that tweeted his frustration with Irving in late October.
Irving has been difficult to rely on during his time in Brooklyn, but when he stays on the court with a motivated team, the Nets are once again showing just how strong they are.
“Missed games, rejoining the group, so it’s not been seamless for him to transition and how to get back into the mix,” Vaughn said Wednesday via Zoom as the Nets prepare for Friday’s game in Toronto. “But since he’s been with us full time, he’s been very consistent.”
Irving noted the Nets’ remarkable streak — they entered the NBA playoffs Wednesday as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference — as the entire team “did all the little things that change the game sometimes.” That’s been a consistent message from Vaughn, who doesn’t tolerate rushed or missed plays.
The 30-year-old will be a free agent at the end of the season, playing for a contract and playing with Kevin Durant one last time.
Lately, he’s been playing like he’s got the stakes completely figured out.
“Let’s win ballgames, that’s really it,” said Irving, who is averaging 25.3 points per game. “There are no more excuses, no distractions, no more random injuries.
“We want everyone to be healthy and everyone to have fun.”