BROOKLYN — Anyone who spent a minute of their offseason wondering how Kyrie Irving was feeling—about life, basketball, Brooklyn, anything—had their question answered on Wednesday night. He’s fine. What he left behind in Boston had dominated the conversation for months, by the end of Irving’s much-hyped Nets debut, it was distant. The final result, a 127–126 overtime loss to the Timberwolves was far from perfect. Irving slipped, recovered, and hoisted a final jumper that drew iron. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t entirely the point.
All the hype surrounding a logical fusion of franchise and star came to immediate fruition as Irving, a New Jersey native, baptized his new home with a 50-point performance. He found rhythm early and often and stirred the crowd with every other dribble. His performance set a Nets franchise record, and shortly after, an NBA record, for most points in a debut. And at his best, Irving remains laughably effortless. He converted more than half of his 33 shot attempts and seven of 14 threes, with eight rebounds, seven assists, somehow, with no turnovers. This was the version of Irving that Brooklyn hoped for all summer. Watching him drill threes from behind screens and dart into the paint, Kevin Durant perched on the bench in jeans, the main thing shifted from whether the Nets were going to win a close game to simply trying not to get ahead of yourself.
Naturally, this particular Nets season requires patience. Devoid of real expectations beyond making the playoffs in a thin Eastern Conference, Brooklyn will be tasked mainly with self discovery as Durant recovers. Their group is competitive and will never cop to this, but staying able to chart progress beyond the final score is a luxury. Brooklyn bought two superstars, but also bought itself some time. “I have the opportunity to be here for a few years,” Irving said. “I got some guys who came with me, who believe in what we have going on here, some young guys that have developed since being drafted. We want to see it through. It’s just exciting to know we have a little bit of longevity here to know one another and get better.”
A year from now, all anyone will want to talk about is Durant’s return to the floor. As far as high drama goes, the next six months are all about Irving. He’s been saying the right things, and repeatedly taken flak for last season’s failures with the Celtics. But as it stands, the Nets are the only team in the league whose discourse tends to center on their best player’s emotional state. On some level, this is his doing. Irving’s interviews carefully toe the line between calculating and candid. He’s made it a mission of sorts to remind people of his own humanity, and remains just open enough to make it clear that even basketball players have it tough when it comes to leaving their work at the office. Irving took the microphone before the game and had to compose himself as he addressed fans in attendance. Teammates and fans alike noted the emotion. “Just eight years, being in different places, experiencing different things, a lot of ups and downs…being here, it just hit me,” he said after the game.
As he tells it, in Boston, his personal and professional lives collided, beginning with the passing of his grandfather on Oct. 23, 2018—exactly a year before his Nets debut. As he dealt with his own off-court trials, Boston’s season dovetailed with him. On media day, he admitted he failed his teammates. On Wednesday, the date’s significance weighed on him. “I just had to make a choice to be happy out there,” he said. And it would seem Irving has arrived in Brooklyn in a much better place, at least outwardly. His on-the-record honesty and apparent clarity when it comes to the present has been refreshing—at the very least, an upgrade on conspiracy theories. His arrival, and that of Durant, has reshaped the franchise’s perception; the Nets must now piece together a collective identity, on top of an expertly laid foundation.
By effectively swapping Irving for D’Angelo Russell, the Nets boast a different sort of offensive potency. Irving’s ability to turn scattershot moments and off-beats into clean looks can be devastatingly random. While Brooklyn lacks the starry supporting cast he had in Boston, their group appears better suited to weather his inevitable highs and lows on the floor. The opportunistic ball-handling of Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie is more accommodating than the Celtics’ array of iso-heavy scorers. Even then, going forward, the ball will have to move much more crisply to get results. The Nets struggled to work the ball inside Wednesday and at times settled for tough shots within the game flow. It’s hardly worth knocking Irving after a remarkably efficient, high-scoring, nearly mistake-free performance. But his old habits resurfaced in the form of some heavy-handed late-game freelancing, and a few sequences where Brooklyn might have benefitted from methodical possessions. Obviously, this was Game 1, and the uptick in chemistry and communication, particularly late in games, requires time.
It was a blip in the grand scheme of things for both the Nets and Irving. But an individual performance like this does breed a degree of well-earned expectations. And those are the new stakes in Brooklyn. “The job wasn’t done,” Irving reminded a throng of reporters postgame. “That 50 just goes…the numbers, it holds value, but not really when you don’t get a win…none of that stuff matters.” It was only partially true.