The thing to keep at the front of your mind, if you are a Nets fan, are the 20 games Kyrie Irving played this year. It was an all-too-brief sample, an all-too-fleeting taste, but those 20 games need to stay prominent because they remind you of all he can be, and all the Nets can be, especially once Kevin Durant joins the party.
It is smart to remember the next-to-last game in which he took the floor for Brooklyn this year, Jan. 31, a Friday night at Barclays Center. Three thousand miles away Kobe Bryant was honored at Staples Center by his team and by his city five days after his death; inside the house on Atlantic Avenue Irving paid his own personal tribute: 54 points, five assists, 19-for-23 from the field, 7-for-9 from 3.
For one of the few times in its history, Barclays was bonkers, all 17,732 people inside chanting his name every time he made a shot, every time he took it hard to the glass, every time he stood up on the bench, peeled off his warm-ups, ambled to the scorer’s table.
“I hit a few shots,” he said later, amid a roomful of teammates who were still practically awed into silence at what they’d seen. “I had to keep going, had to keep that Kobe mentality, that Mamba mentality, keep going.”
The thing to keep in the back of your mind, if you are a Nets fan – hidden beneath the detritus of all the disappointments of all the years going back to the ABA – is watching what Kemba Walker is doing for the Boston Celtics in the NBA’s bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., listening to his teammates line up to praise not only Kemba himself but the experience of playing with Kemba.
“I’ve never seen someone so good who’s first instinct is to be so unlselfish,” Jaylen Brown says.
“A great player who’s a better teammate is a treasure,” says Marcus Smart.
“Our true leader,” says Jayson Tatum.
And what is most important to ignore if you are a Nets fan, if you can, is just how efficiently the Celtics are humming in these playoffs, even without a key cog like Gordon Hayward, rolling over the Sixers and humbling the Raptors in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday.
Now, it is important to state here, because you surely see where this is going: not everything that went wrong last spring for the Celtics was Irving’s fault. He averaged 22.5 points and close to 8 assists in a first-round sweep of Indiana. Boston ran into a Milwaukee buzzsaw in the second round but Irving was still good for 20.4 points and 6.4 dimes a game.
But, then, perception doesn’t always adhere to statistics. The truth is, by the end, the Celtics were an unhappy bunch, disjoined, jarred by Irving’s declaration that he’d play elsewhere as soon as he could – and he was true to that pledge.
And there is this:
The year before, with Irving injured, the Celtics made it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals and would’ve certainly played in the Finals if not for an especially heroic effort from LeBron James in his last-hurrah push in Cleveland. Couple that with the way the Celtics look this year, in their first season After Kyrie, under the stable, guiding hand of Walker …
Well, look: that’s always been the odd appeal of Kyrie, right? You can get all kinds of results from that cocktail. It is a matter of record that LeBron would have one fewer ring, and that Cleveland would still be a town title-free since ’64 if not for Irving’s brilliance in 2016. That is inarguable. And that is the beacon for Brooklyn.
“Never forget,” says a league official who has worked with Irving, “that at his core Kyrie is as good at what he does as anyone alive right now when he’s healthy and when he’s right.”
He paused, because there’s always a pause.
“You just have to hope he’s right.”
He was right for most of those 20 games this year and as a Nets fan that is what you focus on, that’s what you hang your hat on, that’s what you envision when you begin to visualize the Kyrie/KD partnership in full bloom. You shuttle the other stuff – the injuries, the oddities, the times he too regularly shuffles lesser teammates under the wheels of whatever vehicle is nearby – aside. You have to.
And maybe you hide your eyes watching what the Celtics look like these days now that they’ve traded in Special K’s – Kyrie for Kemba – and hope that has nothing to do with you, and with next year, and what’s to come.