As James Harden’s second game with the Nets resulted in both personal and collective triumphs, speculation grew rampant on how the returning Kyrie Irving would accept being downgraded. Pundits logically believed he would be last in the pecking order of the Big Three that also counts Kevin Durant. Considering how he chafed at playing second banana to LeBron James during his Cavaliers days, not a few quarters deemed the development a potentially combustible one. And so they watched his first outing in eight matches yesterday with keen anticipation.
As things turned out, Irving bowed to no one. He finished the set-to having chucked 28 field goal attempts through a career-high 48 minutes, three more than Durant’s total and twice as many as Harden’s. Never mind that his teammates are considered by many to be the best offensive and most efficient players in National Basketball Association history, respectively. And forget that he hadn’t played for the last two weeks. As far as he was concerned, he remained the Nets’ number one option regardless of the circumstances.
For the Nets, Irving’s return was a welcome sight all the same. Head coach Steve Nash spoke of the need to exercise patience as he seeks to find optimum ways to take best advantage of his three All-Stars. “I’m not in a hurry,” he insisted, taking pains to underscore the benefits of having an embarrassment of riches. And because he’s bent on looking at the big picture, he refuses to accept the alternative. He believes he’s justified in rejecting the hypothesis that too many cooks are spoiling the broth, especially given the small sample size.
Well, the Nets better improve, and fast. It wasn’t as if they just ran smack dab against world beaters. The Cavaliers stood a game under .500 prior to their meeting yesterday, and yet they found themselves hard-pressed to keep up. They had to overcome a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit in order to force overtime, but wound up taking the loss after a second extra period in any case. And while Irving can contend that his 37 markers validated his shot-happy predilections, he cannot but concede that he failed to hold his own on the other end of the court. Indeed, counterpart Collin Sexton outplayed him with 42, which included a buzzer-beating trey right in his mug to force another overtime, and then an array of baskets to put the contest away.
Granted, the Nets will be better over time. They simply have too much talent at their disposal. Then again, if yesterday is an indication, they’ll have to work hard behind the scenes to get the desired results. And if there’s anything Irving has proven since he was drafted first overall in 2012, it’s that he marches to the beat of his own tune. They’ve gone all in by giving up a treasure trove of assets for Harden, but success will likely be dictated by the supposedly least important name on the marquee.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.