Unvaccinated Kyrie Irving makes Nets season debut on road against Pacers

Unvaccinated Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving got into the paint and swished one of his soft mid-range jumpers for his first two points on the 2021-22 season.

Later in the game, Irving used his clever dribble to snake through defenders and use the backboard for layup.

In his season debut, Irving had 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting, four assists and three rebounds in Brooklyn’s 129-121 victory against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of gratitude just to be present tonight with everyone and go out there and have fun doing what we love to do,” Irving said.

Irving, who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, can only play in road games because a New York City mandate requires proof of vaccination to enter arenas. At the beginning of the season, the Nets said they didn’t want Irving to be part-time player and that he wouldn’t play or practice until he was fully vaccinated.

But injuries and COVID-19 decimated the Nets roster, and they needed players. They made the decision to allow Irving to play part-time. Asked after the game if he was open to getting the vaccine so he can play in home games, too, Irving avoided the question.

With Irving, the Nets get an elite seven-time All-Star guard back in the lineup alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden. Irving is a proficient 3-point shooter, excellent shot-creator in the paint and effective mid-range scorer and makes the Nets a better team.

He showed some of that against the Pacers, helping the Nets overcome a 19-point deficit late in the third quarter and end a three-game losing streak. He had 14 of his points in the second half — 10 in the fourth quarter as the Nets pulled away for the victory, and the Nets were 18 points better than the Pacers with Irving in the game.

“He looks like himself,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “Not a big surprise watching him in practice. Tonight he was big.”

Kyrie Irving had 22 points in 32 minutes during his season debut.

Durant had 39 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Harden had 18 points, six assists and five rebounds. Brooklyn’s Big 3 will be even more formidable in the games Irving can play.

“It was amazing to have him out there,” Durant said. “I just miss his presence around the locker room, his energy and vibe around the team and then on top of that, his game is just so beautiful. It makes the game so much easier for everybody. It was amazing to see him on the floor again. … I was happy to have him back. … It looked like he had been around for a while. That’s how you play when you’re elite at everything.”

Said Harden: “Special. Felt like he’s been playing all season. He looked comfortable, as usual, his pace, his rhythm. Looked like Kyrie. It definitely felt good to have him on the court.”

Irving played 32 minutes, which is about what Nash planned, and also showed signs of a player who hadn’t played in nearly seven months. He registered five minutes, 11 seconds in his first stint, missing his first two shots — one was blocked — with an assist and a turnover before checking out.

But overall, it was a successful debut — Irving played well and the Nets won with Irving’s dad, Drederick, sitting courtside. Irving gave his dad his game jersey after the game.

“It meant a little bit more just because at this stage, being out of the game for eight months and coming back in and there’s so much uncertainty,” Irving said. “How many minutes? What’s the flow of the game going to be like? How are my teammates going to feel? You just don’t have any idea. I went in with an open mindset to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win.”

Nash isn’t worried about Irving assimilating on a part-time basis.

“It might take a little bit, but Kyrie knows what he’s doing,” Nash told reporters before the game. “He’s been with us and he also can adapt to situations and so we haven’t had a ton of time to really give him the tutorials, but that’s something that we are happy to do on the fly as well. But more importantly, try to feel a sense of cohesion with his teammates, get comfortable playing the game, before we overload him with a ton of thoughts. I think he’ll be fine.”

Since Irving can only play in road games (except New York’s Madison Square Garden and Toronto), he is eligible to play in eight games this month but will miss key home games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets.

Brooklyn also has a road-heavy schedule to start February with six of its first games in the month on the road.

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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