Hornets spoil Irving's long-awaited home debut for Nets

Alder Almo - Philstar.com
Hornets spoil Irving's long-awaited home debut for Nets
Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets drives to the net against Isaiah Thomas of the Charlotte Hornets at the Barclays Center on March 27, 2022 in New York City.
Mike Stobe / Getty Images / AFP

NEW YORK – Kyrie Irving was up until six in the morning after landing three hours earlier from Florida, where the Brooklyn Nets took down the erstwhile Eastern Conference leader Miami Heat the previous night.

Irving waited all season for this day to come. 

The unvaccinated Irving played his first game back at the Barclays Center since Game Two of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season on Sunday (Monday, Manila time). 

But it didn’t go down the way he envisioned it. 

Irving missed his four shots and went 6 for 22 overall in a 119-110 loss to LaMelo Ball and the Charlotte Hornets that spoiled his much-anticipated return at home. 

The loss dropped the Nets to a tie with the Hornets at 39-36 for the eighth seed in the East with seven games left before the playoffs. 

"Not the result we wanted," Irving said. "I didn't shoot as well as I wanted. Basically, none of the things I had hoped for went well tonight. It just didn't happen. And that's just the flow of basketball. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, it felt okay, but just the jump shot wasn't falling tonight. We weren't hitting shots. So not the result we wanted, but definitely grateful that we were part of history tonight and I got to do it here."

While the loss was a spoiler and hurt the Nets in their chase for an outright playoff berth, the meaning of his return to their home floor wasn’t lost on Irving. 

“I’m grateful that we could move forward, but tonight, my presence out there was bigger than basketball. I was just representing a lot of individuals that are out there in a similar situation as me. And now that I can play, I think we should be opened up for everybody,” Irving said. "I made it very clear it was never just about me.”

Irving’s refusal to take the vaccine against COVID-19 torpedoed the Nets’ chances of a higher seeding in the playoffs, especially after they were installed as pre-season favorites by Las Vegas oddsmakers. It also played, in part, in James Harden bolting out of Brooklyn in a blockbuster trade deadline in a package headlined by Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played this season due to a lingering back injury. 

"The point of this season for me was never just to take a stand. It was really to make sure that I'm standing on what I believe in, in freedom. Freedom. I don't think that's a word that gets defined enough in our society. About the freedom to make choices with your life without someone telling you what the f--- to do,” said Irving directing his aim at politicians and people in power. 

“I'm standing for freedom. So that's in all facets of my life. There's nobody that's enslaving me. There's nobody that’s telling me what I'm going to do with my life, and that's just the way I am,” Irving said. “If I get tarnished in terms of my image and people try to slander my name continuously, those aren't things that I forget. I haven't forgotten anything that anybody said. I don't read everything, but I definitely read some things that put my family's name in a certain position that I believe are unfair.”

"I've been discriminated against. People have said things that have been biased. They've gone against their own morals. And where we're living today, I have such a strong moral code of just being honest, being truthful, following God's guidance, and just living with the results. But in terms of that, I'm a servant. I'm comfortable being in that position."

It was only last week when New York City Mayor Eric Adams exempted Irving, other NY-based athletes, particularly New York Yankees and Mets players, and performers from the COVID-19 employer vaccine mandate in what he framed as “leveling the playing field.”

Before the exemption, unvaccinated players from visiting teams were allowed to play while Irving couldn’t. 

Adams, who inherited the mandate from his predecessor, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, did not relent until the Yankees and Mets entered the picture with the Major League Baseball opening day just a couple of weeks away.  

“There's no crying over spilled milk. It is what it is. But I'm not naive to the fact that the Mets and the Yankees have a lot of power in our city,” Durant said over the weekend after Adams rolled back the mandate that allowed Irving to play in New York finally. 

“I'm sure once they all helped and had conversations with whomever they needed to talk to, it was able to push it over the top. So, sports is a huge factor in a lot of these major cities, and I'm glad we can get things done for everybody to move forward.”

A sold-out 18,166 crowd, the largest attendance at the Barclays Center history for a Nets’ home game, anticipated Irving’s return. They egged on the jittery Irving after missing his first four shots and first free throw. 

Irving made his second free throw to finally get on the scoreboard, giving the Nets a 33-28 lead at the 10:15 mark of the second quarter.  

Then Ball took over the rest of the way leading the Hornets to the comeback victory with 33 points, 18 in a scorching third-quarter Hornets run, seven rebounds, nine assists, and three steals. 

Irving finally hit his strides in the fourth quarter scoring 10 of his 16 points. His two free throws with 3:36 left gave the Nets a 106-105 lead. But the Hornets responded with four straight three-pointers to run away with the win. 

Irving tied his season-high 11 assists while Durant scored 27 points, and Andre Drummond piled up 20 points and 16 rebounds in a monster performance. But they could not overcome Irving’s worst shooting night of the season. 

It was Irving’s first back-to-back game in more than two months. Nets coach Steve Nash felt that factor, coupled with the weight of the moment, could have taken a toll on Irving.  

“It could be, who knows? I think he was excited and looking forward to the opportunity to play in front of the home crowd,” Nash said. 

“I think it impacted everybody. I take full accountability – 6 for 22 in 40 minutes [on] back-to-back [schedule]. I definitely could have made a bigger impact in the game by taking my time a little more and letting the game come to me. But definitely, when you’re out there and hear the crowd’s reactions, hear everything that was going on and try not to be distracted but it is what it is,” Irving said. 

“Now we can move on, especially in the locker room. No more distractions, no fear, and the next game will be better,” Irving vowed. 

Durant and the rest of the Nets felt the same way, too. 

“It was great to see him out there. Good to see the fans excited for him,” Durant said. “Unfortunately, we took the ‘L’ though, but we move forward knowing that we have him here and build on what we have and try to get a win next game.”


Alder Almo is a former senior sportswriter for Philstar.com and NBA.com Philippines. He is now based in Jersey City, New Jersey, and writes for the New York-based sports website empiresportsmedia.com.







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