Better late than never.
It’s been the theme of this entire Nets season: At some point, they’d get healthy. At some point, they’d build chemistry. At some point, Kyrie Irving would get vaccinated — or somehow become eligible to play in games at Barclays Center.
And at some point in his first home game of the season — four days after mayor Adams created the vaccine exemption for pro athletes in New York City — Irving was going to turn it on.
What was supposed to be Irving’s welcome home party quickly became a coming out party for Hornets All-Star LaMelo Ball, but eventually Irving stole the show, finally bringing his road act to an arena in the 11217 zip code.
After going scoreless in the first quarter and shooting just 2-of-13 through the first three periods, Irving lit up the Hornets in the final minutes of the fourth period. First a physics-defying finish at the rim, then a blow-by, pull-back, then blow-by again of Ball, the reigning Rookie of the Year, in a crossover sequence that rivaled Allen Iverson’s 2006 double crossover of Antonio Daniels.
Better late than never.
Except Irving’s late-game heroics weren’t enough, not after the Nets blew a 14-point lead to trail as many as 11 in their eventual 119-110 loss to the Hornets on Sunday. Irving’s former teammate, Terry Rozier, hit the dagger three with less than a minute to go to give Charlotte a six-point lead. After Irving missed a shot in the closing seconds, Hornets star Miles Bridges hit another dagger three to put the Nets away for good.
“Not the result we wanted. I didn’t shoot as well as I wanted,” said Irving, who finished with just 16 points on 6-of-22 shooting from the field. “Basically none of the things I had hoped for (were) going well tonight. It just didn’t happen. That’s just the flow of basketball, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually I felt OK. Just the jump shot was falling tonight, and we weren’t hitting shots. So not the results that we wanted. But definitely grateful that we were a part of history tonight and I got to do it here.
All the while, Ball played at times like the best player on the floor, his unorthodox offensive style stumping the Nets possession after possession. On one possession, Ball dribbled into the paint, then immediately darted out to the right wing before launching a three over Andre Drummond’s outstretched arms. On another, he went between the legs at the top of the key five or six times before catapulting a treyball over Nic Claxton.
Ball finished with 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds and hit seven threes on 12 attempts. It was an impressive showing for the second-year guard who often capitalized on Irving’s defense to get his buckets.
Irving looked gassed. It should have been expected in just Irving’s second set of back-to-backs this season. The Nets plane didn’t land until 4 a.m. Sunday morning, just six hours after the end of their walloping of the Miami Heat and only 15 and a half hours before tipoff against the Hornets on Sunday.
Irving’s legs looked shot, his jump shots fell short, but handed out 11 dimes. He only had 10 points through the first three quarters.
The rest of the team looked equally dead — or disinterested. Kevin Durant finished with 27 points, and Andre Drummond had 20 points and 17 rebounds, but the Nets looked lifeless and didn’t play enough defense to stifle the young and fun Hornets.
“You could look at long-range shots and say it might have been our legs but I’m not going to give that excuse,” said Durant. “We just didn’t make them and they came out with a lot of intensity in that third and made shots. Gotta give them credit for knocking them down. I think we missed shots that we usually make and just have to lock in, hit them next game.”
Irving’s return gives the Nets an additional life vest — one that was deflated on Sunday. His full-time availability puts the other role players back to their natural positions and takes the brunt of the scoring load off Durant’s shoulders.
But there are only seven more games for the Nets to piece this puzzle together, seven more games for Steve Nash to figure out his rotations with a full roster, seven more games for Ben Simmons to finally make his debut after battling through a back strain.
Will seven games be enough? Or will this experiment drag into the playoffs?
Better late than never sounds good in theory, until there isn’t any more time. Just like Sunday night.
“Now we can move on,” Irving said. “How everybody can move on, especially in the locker room, limited distractions, no fear, and next game will be better.”