All he needed was a little bit of rest.
Fresh off two days of rest for the first time since becoming a full-time player, Kyrie Irving pelted the Rockets with a barrage of treys to power the Nets to a 118-105 victory over Houston on Tuesday.
Irving scored 11 points in the opening period and finished with 42 on 8-of-16 shooting from downtown and 13-of-24 shooting from the field altogether. It was one of his most efficient scoring games of the latter stretch of the season, a get-right game for a superstar guard who had struggled to score in his last few games.
“Kai was huge for us tonight,” Bruce Brown said. “If we didn’t have Kai tonight I don’t think we win this game. He did everything for us brought energy and he had 42 points and was plus 21 out there. So everything he did for us was huge.”
And it was a much-needed victory for a Nets team that finds itself still at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, still clawing for its very playoff livelihood, still facing elimination — potentially missing the playoffs altogether — if they lose one too many games in the next seven days.
But in Brooklyn, it’s one game, one day at a time. And on Tuesday, the Nets secured a victory that moved them up from 10th place to 9th.
It’s almost unfathomable. A self-proclaimed championship contender with two max superstar scorers and future Hall of Famers is excited about beating a young, inexperienced and athletic Rockets team wallowing at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
But such is the state of affairs at Barclays Center, where a season destined for a championship went awry, and fast, in the middle of the year. First, it was Irving’s decision against getting vaccinated that rendered him ineligible to play at Barclays Center. Then it was Kevin Durant’s midseason MCL sprain that left James Harden shouldering the load on his own. Then Harden called it quits and forced a trade to Philadelphia while Durant was out hurt and while Irving was still only eligible to play on the road. It was a recipe for disaster, a sequence of grossly unfortunate events that sent the Nets spiraling from first in the East with a 27-15 record to now fighting for the right to call themselves a playoff team.
If they’re going to be more than just a fringe contender — or, as some would call it, a pretender — their odds begin to increase in tandem with Irving’s dominance. Since returning to full-time status after Mayor Adams created an exemption for unvaccinated pro athletes in New York City, Irving made just 38 of his first 105 field goals. In the Nets’ disappointing loss to the Atlanta Hawks, he missed significantly more shots (20) than he made (12).
It was a sharp left turn for a star offensive talent many considered a snub for the NBA’s Top 75 list, a player who had scored 60, 50 and 43 points in the games leading up to the creation of the exemption.
“This game is up and down,” the Nets’ star guard said after shootaround Tuesday morning. “This is quite a time to be going through a mini shooting slump or shots that I normally make not going in, but the confidence is there. Just gonna continue to work in the gym and just stay focused on what I can control.”
Tuesday night looked more like those spectacular games for Irving, who put the icing on the cake when he spun around Rockets’ guard Kevin Porter Jr., shifted Houston’s big man Alperen Sengun with a hesitation dribble, then brought the ball over Sengun’s head before switching hands midair to finish with the left.
On the first game of a back-to-back, Irving increased most of the mileage. Durant played the game largely on cruise control. He finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 36 minutes of play.
Therein lies the problem these Nets have faced all season. Against a Rockets team with the worst record in the NBA, the Nets built a 21-point third-quarter lead, only for Houston to cut it to as little as nine a few minutes into the fourth. The Nets struggle against teams as young and athletic and free as the Rockets. Kevin Porter Jr. finished with 36 points and rookie Jalen Green added 28. The Nets had a number of unforced errors they’ll need to correct in their next film session, too. They turned the ball over 16 times, which led to 25 points for Houston off giveaways.
“We’ve been in these lulls where we sort of say this back and forth where we haven’t made a shot offensively, and teams continue to score on us,” Irving said. “So it’s no time to hold our heads, it’s no time to look around. There’s no time to wait for the crowd to get into it. We’ve just got to really put our imprint on the game, and I felt like that was needed.
“And when the game starts to get a little bit out of hand or we have a big lead and when we let it go, it’s time to put the foot back on the gas pedal and lead by example. So that’s what happened.”
The Nets will take the bad with the good, the good being a win that moves them up the standings. The good being a get-right game for Irving who had previously struggled from the field. And the good being positive momentum for the first time in what feels like forever for a championship team barely holding onto its playoff standing.