NEW YORK — Kyrie Irving paused.
The Jersey Kid was back home, addressing the sellout crowd at Barclays Center before making his highly anticipated debut in Brooklyn — the place where he wanted to play, alongside the players he wanted to play with.
Irving had envisioned this moment since he was a fourth-grader growing up in West Orange, rooting for the Nets as they made back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals.
Now, it was finally here — and his emotions took over as a result.
“Oh man, I’m sorry. It’s just hitting me now,” Irving said before composing himself.
It was the one-year anniversary of his grandfather’s death, the tragic turning point in his decision to leave Boston for The Big Apple.
But it was also showtime — and Kyrie Irving put on quite a show.
Irving razzled and dazzled his way to 50 points in 38 minutes on Wednesday night — his staggering stat-line also featuring eight rebounds, seven assists, one block and no turnovers. Yet he fell while trying to crossover dribble on his team’s final possession of overtime before missing a desperation midrange shot at the buzzer, and the Nets lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 127-126.
“I wasn’t trying to get too emotional or anything like that,” Irving said before receiving congratulations from teammate Jarrett Allen’s mother along with some others before leaving the building at 11:04 p.m. ET in a black SUV.
“But I’m just a Jersey kid getting to play for his hometown team, and there’s nothing like it. This has been brewing since I was in fourth grade. I didn’t know if it was going to happen at this point or this age, but it’s here and I just want to take full advantage of it and just be happy and have a sense of gratitude every time I step on the floor.”
Irving’s tenure with the Celtics didn’t end well. He criticized his younger teammates. He admitted he failed as a leader. And he struggled mightily in the playoffs. But he has a chance to redeem himself and show his maturation — both as a person and a player — in Brooklyn.
A championship — or two — would certainly validate the franchise’s decision to give Irving a four-year, $141 million deal.
“He’s on a mission,” a Nets insider told Yahoo Sports. “He knew his reputation took a hit. He’s hyper-aware of that. But he chose this. And he knows he needs to put all the bulls--- aside and produce.”
“During my NBA career, I’ve just had a sense of impatience at times,” Irving said. “You want things to be right there in front of you. … But it’s not about Boston or Cleveland. It’s just about taking the lessons and experiences I’ve had there … and being grateful moving forward and having the opportunity to be here for a few years. I’m nothing but excited.
“I got some guys that came with me, some guys that signed here on faith and believing in what we have going on. And some young guys that have been developed since they got drafted. And we want to see it through. It’s just exciting to know that we just have a little bit of longevity here to get to know one another off the floor and then especially get better on the floor.”
In that regard, the Nets have a long way to go. They struggled defensively and fell behind by as many as 18, while getting little production from their bench. Allen also missed a pair of free throws with the score tied and 5.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
“Desperation,” Irving said of the team’s eventual comeback before the loss. “We had no other choice. Otherwise, [Nets coach] Kenny [Atkinson] was going to kick us in the ass. He’s probably still going to kick us in the ass tomorrow, but just for some missed assignments and some miscommunication.”
Irving, who was plus-18 in the box score, carried them down the stretch, scoring 15 of their final 17 points in regulation, and then seven of their 11 points in the extra period. But it was the one shot he couldn’t hit that sent the team to defeat.
“Job wasn’t done,” Irving said of his 50-point night. “It holds value, but not really when you don’t get a win.”
The Nets certainly could’ve used their other superstar, Kevin Durant, but the team has said he’s unlikely to play this season as he recovers from his Achilles injury. Durant was cheered during pregame introductions, but all he could do was support the team from the bench.
And until KD returns, this is Kyrie’s team.
“I told Kyrie from Day 1: The pressure isn’t on you,” Atkinson said before Wednesday’s game. “I need to perform well and our younger guys need to get better. … Our job here is to give him support.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s Kyrie Irving. He’s a superstar,” a scout in attendance told Yahoo Sports. “I know you’re looking for more than that, but it’s pretty much that simple.”
Irving looked every bit the part on Wednesday night, every bit the six-time All-Star who hit an NBA title-winning shot for the Cavaliers in 2016.
It was just that one miss at the end that he wanted to have back.
“I fell,” Irving said. “I was in the process of making another move and I just lost my footing, lost my balance. Then I somehow got it back. I’ve just got to get my elbow pointed at the rim.”
He looked dejected. His teammates provided hugs and encouragement. It was only one of 82.
“You saw my teammates surround me with love and saying, ‘We got you,’” Irving said. “There’s no better feeling than that. I’m just looking forward to growing with them moving forward.”
It was a tough end to a tough day.
“I just had to make a choice to try and be happy out there — my grandfather would only want it that way for me,” Irving said. “He was my biggest fan, and he was definitely with me tonight. I felt him, and I know he’s going to be with me on this entire journey.”
For Kyrie Irving, that journey, that pursuit of happiness, has taken him to Brooklyn.
It seems like he’s got it all here. Friends. Family. A sense of comfort.
And he may have been the first player to ever become emotional about joining the Nets — in terms of being happy rather than sad.
But he’s got to learn from his mistakes. He’s got to make his teammates better. He’s got to make strides as a leader.
Because if Irving can’t make it work here, he might not be able to make it work anywhere.
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