Returning Kyrie Irving comes up big as Nets rally past Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kyrie Irving finally got the long-awaited season debut he wanted.

And the Nets got the lift they needed.

Irving shook off some early rust and the Nets shook off a huge deficit, rallying for a 129-121 victory before 14,176 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

It snapped a season-worst three-game skid for the Nets (24-12), now 1 ½ games behind East-leading Chicago and a game ahead of third-place Milwaukee.

And they did it with a 25-5 run, sparked by Irving.

“I’ve had a lot of debuts but nothing comes close to this one,” Irving said after his first game since last year’s Eastern Conference semis. “It meant a little more just because at this stage, being out of the game for eight months and coming back there’s so much uncertainty: How many minutes? What’s the flow of the game going to be like? How are my teammates going to feel?

“You just don’t have any idea. So I went in with an open mindset, just to ground myself, be present and do whatever it takes to win. … As a performer, I still get nervous — I settled down [in] the second half. Once I came back out I said, ‘Whatever’s needed out there I’m going to do.’ ”

And he did.

Kevin Durant had 39 points, eight boards and seven assists. But in his first action since June due to his refusal to adhere to New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Irving shook off a scoreless first quarter with 22 points — including eight in the key run that spanned the third and fourth. And flipped the game.

“It was amazing to have him out there,” Durant said. “I just missed his presence around the locker room, his energy, his vibe around the team. And then on top of [that], his game is just so beautiful: He makes the game easier for everybody.”

The Nets made it too easy for Indiana early on. They surrendered the most points they’d allowed all season in a half (down 73-60) and three quarters (trailing 101-94).

“We’ve shown that when guys are out of the lineup we can let our foot off the gas. It’s not giving away state secrets to say that,” Steve Nash said. “It took us to get in a deep hole before we showed the game the respect it deserved.”

Brooklyn gave up 30 points to Lance Stephenson, including 20 in the first quarter. They trailed by as much as 81-62.

The Nets were still down 101-86 on a three-point play by Domantas Sabonis (32 points) with 1:32 left in the third. But they ripped off a 25-5 spurt, finally getting physical and holding Indiana to 1 of 11 shooting.

DeAndre Bembry — out of the rotation at the start — came off the bench with 12 points on 5 of 5 shooting for a plus-24. And Patty Mills’ corner 3 put the Nets ahead 107-106 with 7:32 to play.

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Consecutive Irving midrange pull-ups capped the run and made it 111-106.

“He looked like Kyrie,” said James Harden, who had 18 points. “Took him some time to get back into the flow of the game but once he did, especially when we needed it, he delivered.”

Irving is still only eligible for road games, with 21 left. Asked if he’d reconsider getting vaccinated so he could play full-time, he dodged the question like a defender.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” Irving said. “It’s not an ideal situation, and I’m always praying that things get figured out and we’re able to come to some collective agreement, whether it be with the league or things that’s going on that can help ease what we’re all dealing with with COVID and the vaccine.

“Everybody’s feeling it, so I don’t want to make it simply about me or simply about someone lessening the rules for me. I know what the consequences were; I still know what they are. But right now I’m just gonna take it one day at a time … and however it looks later in the season, we’ll address it then.”

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