Over the last season and a half, Kyrie Irving has been a mainstay in the headlines of daily talk shows for reasons that had nothing to do with basketball.
From being a part-time player last season due to New York City vaccination mandates to his eight-game suspension for his outspoken views on a movie with antisemitic motives this season, Irving was partially responsible for the chaotic aura surrounding the Nets franchise.
When his contract negotiations stalled this offseason, All-Star forward Kevin Durant requested a trade. When Irving elected to pick up his $37 million player option for the 2022-23 season, Durant (eventually) decided to remain in Brooklyn after the Nets couldn’t field a proper trade package in return for one of the greatest scorers of all time.
The drama didn’t stop there, as head coach Steve Nash was fired seven games into the season just before Irving served his suspension. By the time Irving returned, the Nets were off to a 6-9 start, looking like the same underachieving team we’ve seen since he and Durant came to Brooklyn in 2019.
Fast forward two months later and there isn’t a single person who could have predicted how quickly things would turn around in Brooklyn, looking like a contender with a 31-19 record.
Interim head coach Jacque Vaughn deserves a lot of credit for turning the Nets into one of the best defenses in the NBA since taking over. Durant was playing some of the best basketball of his career before suffering an MCL sprain, Ben Simmons finally started to get comfortable on the court again and Nic Claxton is blossoming into one of the best young bigs in the NBA.
But with Durant out of the lineup, it’s time that Irving receives some attention for what he’s doing on the court.
Prior to Durant’s injury, the Nets had rattled off 18 wins in 20 games to catapult themselves up the Eastern Conference standings. Over that span, Irving was already starting to find his rhythm, but he’s taken his game to another stratosphere since Durant went down.
Kyrie Irving’s splits over Nets’ turnaround
Nets’ 20-game hot streak
Since Durant’s injury
Irving recently rattled off a six-game streak of scoring 30 or more points, going for 30, 48, 38, 30, 40, and 32 points to set a franchise record for the Nets when the team needed it most.
The Nets are just 4-6 in 10 games without Durant but if not for Irving’s scorching stretch, the wheels may have completely fallen off in Brooklyn.
Kyrie Irving — the fourth-quarter closer
The seven-time All-Star has really set himself apart in the game’s biggest moments, stepping up as Brooklyn’s closer in the fourth quarter. Over the weekend, Irving poured in 21 points in the final frame against the Knicks, padding his lead as the NBA’s leading scorer in the fourth quarter.
Irving’s 361 total points and 9.5 points per game in the fourth quarter both lead the league, and he’s doing so on efficient .502/.357/.903 shooting splits. His four 20-point fourth quarters are the most in the NBA by a wide margin, and he also has 55 assists to just 32 turnovers in the fourth (a 1.72 assist-to-turnover ratio), making all the right decisions when it matters most.
“Being able to, as the game progresses, to understand what the team needs and what shot is needed, whether it’s a two, whether it’s a drive, whether it’s a drive-and-kick. … I think he’s in a great position of [knowing] what’s needed, and he’s delivering the need,” interim head coach Vaughn said of Irving after his fourth-quarter masterpiece against the Knicks.
“We know he is just going to show up every single time in the fourth quarter. It’s big,” starting center Claxton said of his teammate.
Irving just looks like he’s rediscovered his joy for hooping, once again a walking highlight reel as a basketball wizard.
Whether it’s acrobatic hanging layups against one of the best rim protectors in the league…
…or dancing around pick-and-roll coverages against one of the best perimeter defenders in the league…
…Irving continues to produce plays that leave you laughing and shaking your head, wondering, “how?”
Irving’s availability has been massive for the Nets — something they haven’t seen much consistency on since he joined Brooklyn in 2019.
He has already played in more games this season (39) than all of last season (29) as a part-time player. In playing 39 of 50 available games so far, Irving is on pace to play 63 games this season — which would be the fourth-most in his career (and his eight-game suspension impacts that pace, too, for what it’s worth).
With Irving playing unbothered at the highest level we’ve seen in years, the Nets may finally reach their ceiling of potential once Durant returns.