SAN FRANCISCO — When Kevin Durant sprained his right MCL two weeks ago, Kyrie Irving was deferring and the Nets were struggling.
Now, Irving is leading.
That doesn’t mean chucking up wild shots or playing hero-ball. It does mean being fully engaged, putting his body on the line for his teammates. It does mean not getting in his own feelings, but being a positive influence. Oh, and it does mean having the ball in his hands during winning time and scoring. In bunches.
“Every night I try to put myself in that place, in that zone,” Irving said. “Specifically in the fourth quarter when it’s winning time.”
Irving will enter the Nets’ game at the Warriors on Sunday red-hot, having scored 69 points in his last five quarters. On consecutive nights, he put up 21 points in fourth quarters at Phoenix and Utah.
“It’s like he’s in a different world. He’s locked-in. He’s in a different type of zone and makes those big shots time and time again,” Nic Claxton said of Irving.
“That’s what he does,” Royce O’Neale added. “Right now he’s leading us, and we follow his lead. We’re trusting him, he’s trusting us. So to see him go off like that is always special. You could just tell he had it going.”
Irving didn’t have it going immediately after Durant went down on Jan. 8 in Miami, not really. Over the next four games, Irving missed one contest and shot just 19-for-60 through the 11 quarters he played. That is, until his revival Thursday at Phoenix.
After pouring in 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the final period against the Suns, he scored 48 points on 18-for-29 shooting Friday to beat the Jazz. That’s the form he will carries into Sunday against the Warriors.
“I don’t think [50 points nightly] is an unrealistic expectation,” Irving said, only half-joking. “I have the trust from [coach] Jacque [Vaughn] to be able to make plays down the stretch. … We’ve been able to develop a dialogue that continues to grow game-to-game. So it gives me a lot of confidence in the fourth quarter to be able to perform that way.”
Part of that dialogue was putting the ball in Irving’s hands. After Irving did too much watching while other Nets struggled to create — for instance, playing off the ball while Ben Simmons got minutes at the point, and struggled — Vaughn unleashed Irving on the pick-and-roll, and the results have been spectacular.
“In the fourth quarter of Phoenix we really found a good rhythm. And the spacing that we had, we wanted to go back to that,” Vaughn said. “His ability to play pick-and-roll is going to garner so much attention, especially when he shoots the 3 ball.
“We have bigs who are able to catch in the half roll and play-make also. So putting shooters around him — Seth [Curry], Joe [Harris], Royce, Yuta [Watanabe] — is pretty lethal when he has the basketball in his hands and is playing pick-and-roll.”
The Nets didn’t look lethal in their first three games without Durant, hitting .286 from 3-point range. But they shot .423 against the Suns and .439 versus the Jazz.
Irving’s offense also has benefitted from his engagement on defense. He grabbed 11 boards, had four steals and even took a pair of charges Friday, getting himself going.
“It set the tone, just shows how much he wants to win. He’s doing the little things that counts, taking the leadership right now that Kevin’s out,” O’Neale said.
“I talked about just getting out of my own way and really thinking team first and put my body on the line and leading by example. … When I could get it going on defense and do the little things, it really makes a difference for me and I’m dialed in,” said Irving, who downplayed the showdown Sunday with Golden State superstar Stephen Curry.
“That’s the foundation of us growing throughout this process is me getting out of my own way and allowing the other guys to help. …The ups and downs are going to come and go, but we have to stay poised and consistent. And it starts with me showing up every day and leading by example, and putting my body on the line and doing whatever it takes to win.”