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Since the last of his three straight trips to the NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving has sat out more playoff series than he has played.
Injuries kept him out of all three series with the Celtics in 2018 and out of the Nets’ one-and-done appearance last season, so Irving will not take anything for granted Saturday when he returns to the playoffs for the first time since his Celtics were eliminated in the second round in 2019.
This represents a fresh start — unless it’s actually the beginning of the end.
“Now that we’re here and we’ve got the guys that we have in this locker room and we’ve been through quite a journey, we just want to enjoy the ride,” Irving said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s really all I can say. I just want to enjoy it as if it’s my last.”
Irving, 29, just wrapped arguably the finest season of his career — just the ninth player ever to finish a season shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line, 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range — but keeps basketball in perspective against the political, social and racial movements happening around the world.
At a time when the No. 2-seeded Nets could be thinking about the start of a Big 3 dynasty, does Irving ever stop to wonder when to be done with the NBA and fully invest in other pursuits?
“Doesn’t everybody?” Irving asked rhetorically. “I mean, everybody thinks about it, especially with things that go on in most careers and what they feel like they have to give. It depends on what I have to give to this game or what I have left. It’s always a thought, but not really the most important thing for me right now to think about.”
Irving and Kevin Durant choosing the Nets as a free-agent destination in June 2019 set up the formation of what is now a super team rounded out by James Harden. Saturday’s Game 1 against Tuesday’s Celtics-Wizards winner will mark Durant’s first playoff game since a career-altering ruptured Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals.
“James is our floor general, but Kevin is in many ways our guy that’s been there and done that — winning two championships and being the go-to guy on those teams,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “I think our three stars are going to take the bulk of the leadership, and then some of our vets are invaluable.”
Durant won two championships teaming with Steph Curry and the Warriors. Irving won his ring with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. They crossed paths just once (2017) as those teams met in four straight Finals, but now they share common goals.
“We made a decision two years ago to stick with it and build something here,” Irving said. “No one really saw the vision that we had. We probably won’t get the credit until 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line. That’s just the way history goes. But the intent here was we didn’t want to feel the same effects of being out in organizations or being out with different guys throughout this league that we felt like we couldn’t build something outside of the game with.”
The in-season acquisitions of Harden raised expectations, but the Big 3 played only eight regular-season games together. Chemistry is sometimes bigger than knowing who might cut to the basket when, however.
“It’s just important to have that synergy,” Irving said. “And a lot of situations and circumstances that we were in, we were trying to be ourselves but the environment just didn’t stick. It didn’t fit. And when we came together, we just wanted to be happy. Happiness goes a long way in life, especially when you’re playing this game.”
Entering Tuesday’s game to determine the No. 7 seed, the Wizards posed the more difficult matchup for the Nets. But the Celtics had the old feelings for Irving.
“Some guys are going to get along and it is going to go well and some guys it’s not and it breaks down toward the later stages of the season — that synergy that you need and that trust,” Irving said. “I’m excited to be here. I don’t take any day for granted. It took a while to believe in this vision and we’re finally here — back to the playoffs.”
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