NEW YORK (AP) - Kyrie Irving doesn’t know when he’ll get his first playing time of the season. The fact that it’s sooner than later is good enough for him right now.
Irving returned to practice Wednesday with the Brooklyn Nets, out of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and potentially just a few days away from suiting up with the Eastern Conference leaders for the first time this season.
A possible return date: Jan. 5, when Brooklyn visits Indiana, the next scheduled road game for the Nets.
"Not going to lie," Irving said. "It’s been relatively tough to watch from the sideline. ... But if I get the opportunity to get on the court and play with some of my teammates, even if it’s just on the road for away games, I’m grateful for that opportunity."
Irving has not played this season because he is unvaccinated and therefore not compliant with local rules in New York regarding those who work in the city. The Nets decided earlier this month that the time was right for Irving to return at least for road games — excluding ones in Toronto and San Francisco because of local policies in those cities — in a move that represented a significant shift in Brooklyn’s previous thinking that it would not want the perennial All-Star to be a part-time player.
Irving, speaking to reporters in Brooklyn on Wednesday, said he respected the Nets’ stance. And now that the protocols stint is behind him, he’s raring to go.
"I knew the consequences," Irving said of his vaccination decision. "I wasn’t prepared for them, by no stretch of imagination coming into the season. I had my thought process on being able to be a full-time teammate and go out and have fun and provide a great brand of basketball out there. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that. Things happen for a reason and now we’re here and I’m grateful for this."
The Nets — with NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and James Harden leading the way — have been among the league’s best teams so far even without Irving, holding no worse than a share of the East lead without interruption since Nov. 28.
Clearly, they hope to be even better with him.
"With us getting ravaged by COVID, and us being down so many bodies, it felt like the perfect time to add a fresh body back into the equation, somebody who can bring so much to the floor," Durant said on his podcast about Irving’s looming return. "We just needed it. I think that was the most important thing, that we needed more bodies out there. Adding Kyrie to the equation just makes us so much better as a team. He was down, we were down, it was pretty simple, to be honest."
Durant, one of the Brooklyn players who has been dealing with the protocols this month, said it was pretty simple decision: The Nets needed help, so Irving was approached.
"When the team approached me, we had a good conversation," Irving said. "They said, ‘We want you back,’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ This is always where I wanted to be. I wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that."
It wasn’t exactly a full practice for the Nets on Wednesday. Coach Steve Nash said the team’s "stay-ready group" got together to play and do some conditioning work, and Irving was part of that.
The plan all along has been for the Nets to ease Irving back into the fold slowly because he hasn’t been able to train at an NBA level for several weeks. There is still no sense of urgency, Nash insisted, and said how Irving handles each step of the process will determine the timetable.
"He looks great considering he just came out of protocols and hasn’t played basketball," Nash said. "How does he recover from today? How many high-intensity bouts does he need to feel comfortable, confident, from a personal standpoint, for Kyrie, for the performance team, all those different measures. It’s still a shifting landscape ... but seeing him in the flesh today, he looked as well as you could expect considering everything that’s happened in the last few weeks."
Irving said he’s been at home, cheering his teammates on from afar. The Nets have used 12 starting lineups and 20 different players in their 32 games but still have not had so much as a two-game losing streak so far this season. Brooklyn is 9-0 after losses, looking very much like a title contender even without a seven-time All-Star and past NBA champion who has averaged 27 points per game in his first two seasons with the Nets.
"Being in this environment and playing with the best of the best is where I belong," Irving said. "This is where I’ve worked my entire life to be. So, it was like riding a bike or just being at your first day of school again, just going back out there. And I missed it."
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