On Wednesday, after scoring 38 points in a win over Detroit, Kyrie Irving’s postgame media session lasted just under eight minutes. He was asked about the brilliance of his teammate, Kevin Durant. “I definitely don’t take it for granted,” Irving said. About the defensive presence of Nic Claxton. “He’s an asset,” said Irving. About the poise the Nets have shown of late. “When one of our leaders like [Durant] gets going,” said Irving, “we keep pushing.” Equally important was what he was not asked about: antisemitic films, vaccines or any off-the-floor issues.
In recent weeks, the storms that have enveloped Irving for much of the last two seasons have subsided. The controversies—self-inflicted, for the most part—have faded away. It’s left Irving to do all he says he has ever wanted: Play basketball. And it’s offered a reminder that when Irving does, he’s pretty damn good.
Over the last dozen games—where Brooklyn has won 11 of them, vaulting the Nets into the top four of the Eastern Conference—Irving has been spectacular. He’s averaging 29.3 points in December. In his last five games—Irving missed Brooklyn’s most recent win over Golden State with a calf strain—that number jumps to 32. He’s been durable (36.6 minutes per game), efficient (49%) and reliable in the clutch. After Irving buried a game-winning three to beat Toronto last week, Nets coach Jacque Vaughn praised not only the shot (“He did what he does,” said Vaughn) but the assist Irving picked up on a Yuta Watanabe three one possession earlier.
“Unbelievable,” Vaughn said.
With Irving active—and undistracted—it’s provided a glimpse of how potent the Nets can be. Since the start of November, Brooklyn ranks sixth in offensive rating, 10th in defensive rating and fifth in net rating. During the current seven-game winning streak, the Nets are first in offensive rating, effective field goal percentage and field goal percentage. In Wednesday’s win over Detroit, Irving and Durant combined for 81 points. Behind two of the NBA’s best finishers, Brooklyn is 12–3 in “clutch” games, defined as when there are five or fewer minutes remaining and the scoring margin is within five points.
“We’re making shots,” said Durant. “We’ve been generating solid shots all year. I think they are just starting to fall now.”
Skeptics, and there are many, will point not to Irving but Brooklyn’s schedule as the reason for its recent success. The Nets beat Portland … without Damian Lillard. They beat Atlanta … without Dejounte Murray. The Warriors were officially in town on Wednesday but, without Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, they were mostly a bunch of other guys wearing Golden State jerseys.
Still, the Nets’ success can’t be dismissed. It’s not just Irving. Durant is an MVP candidate. Ben Simmons is finding his groove. After a shaky start, Joe Harris is shooting 55% from three in December. Royce O’Neale—dismissed as a 3-and-D player after a subpar season in Utah—is shooting a career-best 41.5% from beyond the arc and playing a key role with an improving defense. Claxton, who is leading the NBA in field goal percentage, anchors their defense. Brooklyn’s four-man lineup of Harris, Durant, O’Neale and Claxton holds a defensive rating of 104, which leads the NBA among the 43 lineups that have played 100-plus minutes. During a recent win over Washington, Claxton instructed Irving to allow Wizards guard Corey Kispert to drive, knowing he would be waiting for him at the rim.
“When Nic’s telling me to get out of the way so he can get blocks, I know we’re in for a good active night,” Irving said. “When he’s blocking shots it makes our defense a lot more dangerous.”
The Nets will have a chance to show how dangerous they are in the coming weeks. They play Milwaukee on Friday. Cleveland on Monday. Atlanta the middle of next week. This version of the Nets, this version of Irving, will be competitive. What once seemed like a lost season for Irving, one that could have ended with him benched, traded or even outright released, seems to have been salvaged. Irving created a lot of problems for himself over the last few months. He apologized for them. And now, on the court, he is playing his way out of them.