Kyrie Irving made his return on Sunday after a two-month absence that kept Brooklyn Nets fans impatiently waiting to see their star. The results were immediately evident in a 108-86 shellacking of the Atlanta Hawks, though it’s fair to note the caveat that his return took place against the worst team in the league.
Irving dismantled a Trae Young-less Hawks team, putting up 21 points in nearly 20 minutes while shooting 10-of-11 from the floor and making as loud a return as his minute limitation would allow him to make. While expectations will have to be tempered since this was a performance that took place on an ideal stage against one of the worst defensive teams in the league, there is no denying that Kyrie Irving’s brilliance brings a much-needed jolt to a Nets squad that just recently suffered a seven-game losing streak and had been really struggling offensively.
Holding the No. 7 seed with a record of 18-20, Brooklyn is luckily still comfortably in the playoff picture despite the losing skid, a testament of the stark difference between playoff-bound and non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. The eighth-seeded Orlando Magic are 4.5 games ahead of the outsider trio of the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons.
The Nets were 16-13 before going on their end-of-year skid, one that rolled into the first week of 2020 and ultimately came to an end with a 117-113 win over the Miami Heat on Friday, a confidence booster prior to Irving’s return as it became clear he would be back on the floor soon.
As seen from Sunday’s win, the Nets plan to play Irving and backup Spencer Dinwiddie in the same backcourt, though judging by their first game together, it may not be a great mix.
Dinwiddie had seven points, four rebounds, and eighth assists in under 25 minutes of play, most of which he played next to Irving. That was the first time in over two months in which he had scored in single digits, which he has only done twice this season.
The 6-foot-5 guard out of Colorado is a capable but by no means efficient 3-point shooter, making only 28.9% of his shots from beyond the arc this season. Caris LeVert, who came off the bench Sunday, is hitting 38.2% of his long-range shots through a small 13-game sample this season.
This is the area where Irving helps the most, as he’s a career 38.8% 3-point shooter who has struggled to connect this season (34.8%) but can only go up from here. The Nets love to fire up 3-pointers (sixth in the NBA), but they’re just 28th in converting those long-distance attempts at 33.0%.
The jolt Kyrie Irving provides to this team will be significant, but it can only translate into wins if he’s paired with the right backcourt asset and if coach Kenny Atkinson can figure out a way to make the most of that off-guard position to complement Irving, instead of trying to maximize the firepower the Nets have been missing for the past month or so.