INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time this season, the Nets had their “Big 3” together when Kyrie Irving made her season debut as a part-time track player. But for three quarters of an hour, it looked like the Nets were on the verge of their “Big 4,” as in one of the season’s worst fourth losses in a row against the Pacers Wednesday night at Bainbridge Fieldhouse.
But suddenly it was as if their muscle memory started. Starting late in the third period, the Nets made an epic endgame of 48-23. Irving scored 13 of his 22 points in that period, including 10 in the final period, and Kevin Durant had 10 of his 39 as the Nets rebounded impressively to a 129-121 victory over the Pacers.
Irving admitted he was emotional about his return under these circumstances as an unvaccinated player who was only eligible for the last 22 road games that started with the Pacers. When asked to compare this season’s debut with all the other debuts in his career, he left no doubt.
“I’ve had a lot of debuts, but nothing comes close to this one,” Irving said. “It meant a little bit more, just because, at this point, being out of the game for eight months and coming back, there’s so much uncertainty – How many minutes? How will the game flow be? How is my teammates going to feel? You just have no idea.
“So I went in with an open mindset, just to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win. In the first possession, when I shot that shot, I was so caught up in just doing “My first two points, I was so nervous. As a performer, of course I still get nervous. But the first shot I wanted it to come in.”
It did not. Irving missed all three shots he took in the first period and made a turnover. The show stopper in the opening quarter was former Indiana star Stephenson, who sat out two seasons before returning to play six games earlier this season with Atlanta. He then joined the Pacers again.
This was his third fight back. Stephenson entered the game as it was a draw to 15. After a layup by Domantas Sabonis, Stephenson scored the final 20 points of the opening period for the Pacers, who took a 37-32 lead.
At the break, the Nets were trailing by 73-60, and the number of points scored by the Pacers represented a season-high allowed in any half of the Nets. Their deficit grew to 19 in the third quarter and was still at 17 when they received their last charge.
Irving scored 13 of the Nets’ last 46 points in the crushing comeback race. Asked about the importance of that performance, Irving said: “It felt good, but it really just started at the defensive end. I think this is where we’ll get to mark ourselves by consistently climbing up guys and doing it’s hard. We’re 1-2 in the East and we have ambitions to play later in the postseason, so I just think we’ll put ourselves together as a team and just be honest with each other out there, it helps. “
Nets improved to 24-12. In addition to Durant and Irving, the Nets scored 18 points from James Harden, 13 from LaMarcus Aldridge and 12 from Nix Claxton, and they shot 56.3% from the field despite a 5-to-21 performance from three-point range.
The Pacers (14-25), who were on the second night in a back-to-back, were led by a triple-double from Sabonis, which totaled 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. They got 30 from Lance Stephenson on 12-to-19 shooting.
When it ended, it felt like the Nets were whole again. There was no doubt about Durant’s delight at Irving’s return.
“It was great to have him out there,” Durant said. “I just missed his presence in the locker room, his energy, his mood around the team. And so on top of that [that], his game is just so beautiful. . . the basketball game is happy to have him back. “