Kyrie Irving attempted to shut down comparisons to last season amid a four-game Nets losing streak with Kevin Durant sidelined.
“This isn’t last year, so the comparisons just gotta stop,” Irving said.
Despite his insistence, Brooklyn’s lackluster play had done little to quell the narrative. The Nets dropped winnable games against Oklahoma City and San Antonio before sleepwalking for three quarters in Thursday’s loss to a Phoenix team without Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Given the string of disappointing losses and a difficult upcoming schedule, another downward spiral with Durant injured was more than plausible.
Irving put his money where his mouth is Friday to halt the avalanche of speculation. The guard exploded for 48 points on 18-of-29 shooting from the field and 8-of-15 from three to carry the Nets to a 117-106 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Irving’s engagement and demeanor to open the game were a stark contrast to the loss against the Suns. The fourth-year Net was everywhere on the floor, forcing his imprint in all facets of the game. Irving posted 11 rebounds, six assists, and four steals to complement his incredible scoring night. And the veteran said that engagement, particularly defensively, translates to success in all areas for him and his teammates.
“Really just putting my body on the line and leading by example,” he said of his mindset. “It’s one heck of a thing when you can be one of the great scorers and obviously play well on the offensive end, but when I can get it going defensively and do the little things it really, really makes a difference for me in getting dialed in.”
Like Thursday, Kyrie Irving ascended to a different planet in the fourth quarter, scoring 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 from three to kill a Jazz comeback.
Kyrie Irving went to another planet to snap Brooklyn's four-game losing streak:
48 points (21 in 4Q)
18/29 from the field
8/15 from three
One of the best performances of his Nets career when Brooklyn desperately needed it. pic.twitter.com/KMposUCBl6
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) January 21, 2023
Brooklyn is no stranger to Irving’s late-game brilliance this season. The seven-time All-Star’s clutch play has propelled the Nets to victory down the stretch of numerous wins. Irving leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring this season at 9.2 points per game. And the guard said the trust he has received from head coach Jacque Vaughn has given him added confidence late in games.
“Man, every night I try to put myself in that place, in that zone, specifically in the fourth quarter when it’s winning time,” Irving said. “I have the trust from Jacque (Vaughn) to be able to make plays down the stretch. He comes to me and we talk about it and I think we have been able to develop a dialogue that continues to grow game to game.”
“So it gives me a lot of confidence in the fourth quarter to be able to perform that way. My teammates are looking to me as well, and when the ball is feeling good in my hands I just wanna get a great shot that’s better for our team.”
Nic Claxton continued his campaigns for Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year Friday. The big man posted 20 points for the second straight night to go along with five rebounds and four blocks. Claxton has now blocked three or more shots in 11-straight games, tying Shawn Bradley for the longest streak in Nets franchise history.
The 23-year-old is leading the NBA in blocks this season (2.7 per game) while proving to be one of the league’s top perimeter-defending bigs. Claxton has also taken a significant leap offensively while leading the league in field goal percentage (73.0).
Ben Simmons continued his offensive struggles in the win. After being ejected in the third quarter of the loss at Phoenix, Simmons posted six points and five assists on 3-of-7 shooting Friday. The big man is averaging 5.4 points on just 5.3 shots per game in January.
Brooklyn received hot stretches from several role players throughout the critical win. Royce O’Neale came out firing on all cylinders in his homecoming, draining his first three triples on his way to 13 points for the night. Joe Harris then connected on three treys in the third quarter to keep the Nets in the game and Seth Curry canned two threes in the final two minutes to help secure the win.
SETH CURRY 🗡️pic.twitter.com/tsME3hd35j
— Nets Nation (@NetsNationCP) January 21, 2023
Kyrie Irving and Co. will look to build some momentum as they continue the Durant-less stretch with a matchup in Golden State Sunday before traveling back to the East Coast to meet the 76ers in Philadelphia.