Kyrie Irving is set to return from his suspension for the Nets on Sunday when they host the Grizzlies at Barclays Center. And he’ll be coming back to a different team than the one he left.
The last time Irving played for the Nets, they lost to the Bulls on Nov. 1 to fall to 2-6. Irving, who was surrounded by controversy over his promotion on social media of an anti-Semitic film, struggled through a four-point, 2-for-12 nightmare, after which he did not speak to the media. The Nets were stumbling after the firing of coach Steve Nash and Jacque Vaughn stepped is as interim coach (he since has been hired full-time) before that loss to the Bulls.
Before the next game, Irving was suspended without pay. And as he missed the next eight games, a funny thing happened: the Nets started to win.
Irving’s absence — during which the Nets have gone 5-3 — was bookended by a 42-point win in Washington, and a thrilling victory Thursday in Portland. In knocking off the Western Conference-leading Trail Blazers for their most impressive win of the season, they exhibited all the traits Vaughn has tried to instill. The Nets scrapped on defense, shared the ball on offense, and came through as a team in the clutch.
Those tenets are non-negotiable, according to Vaughn. But while returning an All-Star point guard to the active roster will be a boon, Irving is going to have to fit into the new defensive-minded, team-first dynamic Vaughn is preaching.
“Yeah, there is some uncertainty there for sure,” Vaughn said. “My approach is the train is going to keep moving. And that train of playing hard, playing together, being a team, that’s going to continue. And it’s going to be up to me to get our group to incorporate everybody. But the train is gonna keep moving.”
The train at least appears to be moving in the right direction, and it’s not going to stop for Irving. He’s going to have to jump on.
The Nets were dead last in the NBA in defensive rating at 118.3 when Irving was suspended on Nov. 3. They came into Friday night second-best at 106.3. Their net rating vaulted from third-worst to fifth-best.
To close out their road trip at Portland, the Nets showed a fair amount of grit in a game they easily could have mailed in. But a defense-fueled 14-0 run late in the third quarter gave the Nets a lead going into the fourth.
They got a season-best effort from Ben Simmons, and 20 points from Yuta Watanabe. They got 35 points from Kevin Durant. And Royce O’Neale had his first triple-double, including tipping in Durant’s miss for the game-winner with 0.7 seconds left.
Since Irving was suspended, the offense is new, the defense is tweaked and even the team’s psyche has changed. He’ll have to adjust to them, not the other way around.
“We’re playing a different brand of basketball than we were when he last played,” said Durant, who felt Irving wouldn’t take long to get up to speed, conditioning-wise. “So I know coach is looking forward to adding another weapon in our offense, and he’s been drawing up some amazing plays for us so I know he’s got some more stuff up his sleeve for Ky.”
The Nets are different on both ends of the court.
On offense they’re less wed to isolation and more reliant on ball movement. Their assist-to-turnover ratio has jumped from 17th with Irving to third-best without the one-on-one wizard. Irving is averaging 26.9 points, 5.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds, but can’t be the focus he was. The ball pops in this egalitarian offense.
And defense, the Nets switch even more under Vaughn, using red schemes to double in the post and force turnovers. Those turnovers are needed to help fuel their offense.
The question was put to Vaughn: Can the Nets play that way when Irving comes back?
“I think for this group we have to be that way,” Vaughn said. “A big part of that is you see the lineups. We play small. We’ve had Kevin, we’ve had Yuta, we’ve had Markieff [Morris] at center at times. So in order to do that you have to be scrappy and understand it won’t look pretty all the time but the results are what matter.”
The results are how the Nets — and Irving — will be judged.
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