Star Brooklyn guard Kyrie Irving scored 22 points in an NBA season debut delayed by his unvaccinated status, helping the Nets rally for a 129-121 victory over the Pacers in Indiana on Wednesday.
Irving’s first appearance was just one highlight on a night that featured the Dallas Mavericks’ 99-82 triumph over the league-leading Golden State Warriors.
The victory in Dallas set the scene perfectly for a post-game ceremony to retire the jersey No. 41 of Mavericks franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki.
In Indianapolis, all eyes were on Irving, who missed the first 35 games of the season.
He played just under 32 minutes, scoring 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter to help Brooklyn erase a 19-point third-quarter deficit.
“Oh man, it was amazing,” Irving said in an on-court interview.
Irving remains ineligible to play home games in Brooklyn because of New York vaccine mandates. He is also barred from games at Madison Square Garden and in Toronto, and it wasn’t until this month that the Nets decided it would be worth having him on court part-time.
“We were going around signing a bunch of 10-day (contract players) when we have a guy who can play for us, so what’s the difference between a 10-day and a guy — those are part-time players, too,” Nets coach Steve Nash said, calling it an opportunity to “use a resource that we have and that we weren’t using.”
Irving’s return came at an opportune time for the Nets, who had lost their last three games to slip behind the Chicago Bulls for the Eastern Conference lead.
Irving was in the starting lineup but got off to a slow start as Pacers guard Lance Stephenson — playing on a 10-day contract — scored 20 points in the first quarter as the hosts took a 37-22 lead.
But Irving warmed up, and capped an 8-0 run with a jump shot at the third-quarter buzzer that pulled Brooklyn within five points heading into the final frame.
“We just wanted to come out with a resilient attitude and do the right things on both ends of the floor,” Irving said, calling the first half “horrible.”
“We came out the second half with a resolved attitude,” he said.
Kevin Durant led the Nets with 39 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. James Harden added 18 points, six assists and five rebounds.
The first look this season at Brooklyn’s “Big Three” of Irving, Durant and Harden may have been encouraging, but Irving won’t be available for their next two games — when they host the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and San Antonio Spurs on Sunday.
“It’s not ideal this situation we’re in,” Irving said. “But we’re going to battle through it and we’re going to do everything we can to stay together.”
Mavs honor Nowitzki
The Mavericks’ win over the Warriors was the start of an emotional night in Dallas, where Germany’s Nowitzki, who led the team to the NBA title in 2011, became the fourth player to have his jersey retired by the club.
Nowitzki played all 21 of his NBA seasons in Dallas, winning a season Most Valuable Player award as well as a Finals MVP.
He’s sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 31,560 career points and paved the way for European players such as two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dallas’ Slovenian star Luka Doncic.
Doncic scored 26 points, and the Mavs won their fourth straight as Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors were unable to get their potent offense going.
Curry connected on just five of 19 shots from the field — including one of nine from three-point range — as the shooting woes that have seen him limited to 37.9% over his past 15 games continued.
“Everyone is throwing everything at him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I think tonight he pressed a little bit.”
Despite their struggles, the Warriors managed to erase a 14-point deficit and take a seven-point lead in the third quarter, but they couldn’t sustain the charge and finished with a season-low in points.
“I thought we kind of ran out of gas in the fourth quarter,” Kerr said.