Kyrie Irving Ready for the Journey With Kevin Durant

Kyrie Irving Ready for the Journey With Kevin Durant

Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia – May 5th, 2016 (Shutterstock)

By Tom Dowd, NBA

Just so you know, Kyrie Irving was waiting for this night too.

Sunday’s preseason win over the Washington Wizards brought Irving back to an NBA court for the first time since the first night of last February, brought him together with Kevin Durant for the first time in an NBA game, and brought the Brooklyn Nets to the start of a journey he’s looking forward to taking.

“Now that we have everybody — a full collective group — I am just excited to continue to grow and build,” said Irving after Monday’s practice session. “It is not just me. I am grateful that I get to share the floor with just so many other great players, just good players with high IQs and you know, it is just so different here. I love it.”

It is the Irving/Durant pairing that has been charging the imaginations of Nets fans since they chose Brooklyn as free agents in the summer of 2019. Both were coming off All-NBA Second Team selections, among the top 10 players in the league, while the Nets were coming off a return to the playoffs with an energetic and rising young core.

Irving and Durant, teammates on a gold medal USA Basketball Olympic team in 2016, had built a growing connection off the court, and seized the opportunity to do the same on it.

“I really want to implement – this group is what makes us even more special,” said Irving. “They follow – I’m not even going to say follow – they’re alongside of us for this journey to aid us in our goals. And, yeah, me and K, we have a great relationship – as you can see on Sitting With KAI that I did on my platform. We have a great relationship. But our synergy carries over to everyone else and we allow each other to teach, to learn, to do it every single day.

“When I first became close with Kev, it was just built on that. It was talking about our circumstances that we grew up, our journeys. And then it transferred to our activities that we wanted to be a part of outside – whether it be business, whether it be playing together. And we were like man, this thing can happen. And we had to wait, maybe a year-and-a-half. And it came to fruition and now you guys get to see a product that has been worked on for the last few months. So we do things to continue to be closer as brothers but as well as keep everyone else engaged with us. Because our greatness is even better together than alone, which is why we’re together.”

While Durant worked his way through a steady rehab of his injured Achilles’ during the 2019-20 season, Irving navigated a more turbulent injury experience. Shoulder pain first pushed him out of the lineup in early November, but he returned in January after receiving a cortisone shot in late December. After a string of spectacular outings, including a 54-point game in his final game of the season at Barclays Center, Irving opted in February for shoulder surgery. Over the 20 games he played last season, Irving scored at a career-high rate of 27.4 points per game.

“It’s not the first time I had a significant injury you know where I’ve been out a long period of time,” said Irving. “So, I’ve had to build myself back up quite a few times in my career, you know, getting hit down in 2015 Finals with my fractured kneecap and then, you know, just having minor injuries and couldn’t really avoid the injury bug, just being able to play a high level for a system at a time. And it was very disappointing. You know, having disappointing seasons the last few years hasn’t necessarily been the best reflection that I wanted to put out. But you know it’s a different show, it was a different stage and it’s a new beginning in terms of what we’re building and moving forward with the pieces that we have here. And that includes 7-11, so get to know us.”

As of Sunday night, here they are, together. Irving and Durant combined for 33 of Brooklyn’s 68 first-half points, powering the Nets to a 26-point lead in the second quarter. Irving’s night ended at halftime after 17 minutes of action, shooting 7-of-9 overall and 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

“Kyrie looked incredible,” said Durant. “He’s unstoppable. He’s a master at his craft, so he can pretty much do whatever he wants for us on the floor. He set the tone for us.”

Overall, the Nets shot 63.9 percent in the first half, including 40.0 percent from 3-point range. With the offensive pressure they applied, the Nets drew 14 fouls and took 24 free throws in the first half alone, 45 for the game. For reference, the Nets averaged 24.1 free throws per game last season.

This was without the dynamic LeVert, who was out with a patella contusion. Spencer Dinwiddie started and went across the board with 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Having Dinwiddie or LeVert on the floor with Irving and Durant gives the Nets three players highly capable of operating as a lead guard and creating offense.

“Our offense is predicated on guys just being efficient in space,” said Irving. “Some of us don’t necessarily have the target of shooters — you know, catch and shoot — and we’re kind of one on one guards you know, sort of say we can get our own shots. Guys can do so many things intangibly with the game. But, when you have Caris, myself, Spence and KD out there — just that four, you know, alone in one group, it is hard to match up. We see mismatches all over the floor and then you add in the versatility of the other guards that we have that can play multiple positions with Tyler Johnson coming off the bench — being able to play defense and being able to play that lead guard. We got (Chris) Chiozza who is a great back-up as well. Guys are showing great things in camp and we just want that to translate into the season so we can just plug in guys whenever we see fit — or coach (Steve) Nash can plug in guys.”

With Nash in his first season as Brooklyn’s coach, Irving has a Hall of Fame point guard to collaborate and strategize with, and he was equally effusive about the addition of assistant coach Mike D’Antoni and the full Brooklyn staff, with its combination of returning coaches and new additions.

“Steve’s been amazing,” said Irving. “And it really is a reflection of the type of person he is, and the IQ he has for the game. He commands the respect and it’s not through just coming in and being the kind of typical rah-rah coach being on us. It’s just giving us a comfortable space to grow, to communicate, to throw ideas out there. And then you’ve got a two-time MVP coaching you. You know, I think I’ve got to take back my comments in terms of the head coach back a few months ago. But it’s just like, man, we have such a great synergy. Everyone feels like we’re coaching one another to be better, so I’m grateful for that.”

In a week, after one more preseason game against the Celtics on Friday night, Irving and Durant will make it count when the Nets open the regular season against the Warriors. Both have won NBA championships, with three NBA Finals appearances for Irving and four for Durant. So they’re matching high aspirations with the knowledge of a challenging road ahead.

“You can’t make up experience,” said Irving. “You can’t make up time, you can’t make up trying to get this whole thing as a championship collective train right away. As much as I would like to put aspirations, expectations on us like, hey we get to this point we’re going to be a championship team and we know, that’s just not true.

“We gotta continue to make progress every single day and craft and that’s just doing little things every single day in terms of when you get to that level which is ultimately the NBA Finals, which is the biggest goal for us, to compete at that level and we know the monsters that are getting together and all these different teams which I’m excited for. I mean, the league is going to be that much more exciting and as a competitor you want to build your team the best without anything mattering when it comes down to putting that ball in the hoop Game 1 through 7 in the Finals. This is the beginning of the journey, use every day to get better.”

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