MILWAUKEE — The last time Kyrie Irving was in Fiserv Forum, he was gimping off the court alongside the Nets’ GM and team doctor with an injured ankle that ended his playoffs. And essentially Brooklyn’s title run.
In Saturday’s return? He strode off into the waiting arms of his father Drederick, who clasped him in an embrace that was equal parts victorious and visceral. The Nets’ 126-123 win — and how Irving carried them to it — wasn’t just a game. It was a purge.
“Yeah, it was definitely emotional for me to prepare for this game just because of what you just said,” Irving said. “I haven’t been back in this building since then, and I tried my best not to wear my emotions on my face or on my shoulder, but sometimes they get the best of me.
“But it definitely felt like there was a weight lifted just getting back here, being healthy, getting a win and knowing that there’s a possibility we could see them down the line again. So it makes our competition in our league that much more fun.”
The Nets’ hadn’t had a ton of fun lately.
They are 5-14 since star Kevin Durant went down with an MCL injury on Jan. 15.
Last season it was injuries that short-circuited their campaign as well, when Irving came down on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinals they seemed in control of. But they lost that control when they lost Irving to a severely sprained ankle, hobbling off the floor with GM Sean Marks and Dr. Riley Williams, the Nets’ Medical Director and Orthopedic Surgeon.
But Saturday was an entirely different scene. This time — with Durant out, and James Harden traded away to Philadelphia — it was Irving that carried the day.
“When you watch Kyrie, it feels like he’s in the video games,” said Goran Dragic, who played alongside Irving for the first time on Saturday. “It’s just crazy how he moves and how he’s making those tough shots.”
Irving had a season-high 38 points, five assists and five rebounds. And he took over when he had to, with his Nets trailing 110-103 with seven minutes left. He poured in a dozen points in a 23-13 run to close the game and steal the win.
“Kyrie was amazing. Incredible shotmaking and carried a big portion of our offense and allows other guys more space to breathe as well,” coach Steve Nash said. “He improves the whole team with his presence and shotmaking and creativity.”
But they won’t have that for awhile at least.
Irving gave a hungry Nets team a boost, and desperation was the mother of victory. They had dropped 13 of 15, and don’t expect to get Kevin Durant back until at least the end of next week.
The Nets stayed 3 ½ games behind No. 6 Boston for the final playoff spot. They crawled within a game of No. 7 Toronto, with a huge home-and-home against the Raptors looming Monday and Tuesday. They knew a bad couple of days could have pushed them deeper into the play-in.
And now they won’t have Irving for either of those Raptors games, because of his unvaccinated status. But with New York mayor Eric Adams’ recent comments expecting to loosen vaccine mandates, it offers hope to see this kind of show at Barclays Center for the first time all season.
“I’m following just as much as you guys are, so just remaining patient and just seeing where things end up in the next week or so or two weeks. I’m not too sure, but I know as much as you do,” Irving said. “The circumstances this season have not been ideal, but I’m glad that things are kind of settling down and there’s light at the end of the tunnel here and hopefully I can get back on that home floor playing at the Barclays.”