It is a tale with two returns.
Kyrie Irving is back with the Nets — well, on a part-time basis at least — after spending the season sidelined for reasons of his own making: the stubborn refusal of a Covid-19 vaccination.
After 30 months of basketball rehab, Klay Thompson will soon return to the Golden State Warriors. Threety months and two and a quarter seasons of hard, sometimes heartbreaking rehabilitation.
Thompson’s comeback brings us the opportunity to marvel again at one of the most symbiotic connections in sports. From 2012 until his initial injury in 2019, Thompson and Stephen Curry, his close friend and backcourt mate, offered steady lessons in combined greatness: ballet-like cutting and passing, orbital jumpers from every angle — all of it performed in remarkable tandem.
Finally, we get to see Steph and Klay in Part II.
Thompson’s return does bring about questions, but they are as simple and straightforward as his pull-up 3-pointers. Will he be able to return to his All-Star form that led Golden State to three N.B.A. titles? titles? How long will it take to get these titles?
Irving’s comeback is another matter altogether. Irving’s return is a gamble. It sends a questionable message about personal responsibility in a crisis. It also leaves the Nets in a mess. The team is close to realizing its significant dreams, even as it now operates under the shadow of Irving’s most recent act: Here one game, gone the next.
Few in basketball have ever been as elusive as Irving is when he winds through opposing teams and slices down the court — a fact underscored by Irving’s return to the Nets on Wednesday, when he scored 22 points and helped lead the team back from a 19-point deficit to defeat the Indiana Pacers, 129-121.
Irving can be just as difficult to pin down from the hardwood. There may not be an N.B.A. Point guard that is as good at pinpoint passing and getting his teammates involved. He is also known for his erratic personality and ability to implode teams. (See: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers.
Irving’s belief that the earth is flat? That was once a funny sideshow that he couldn’t quite explain in any manner that made sense.
Irving takes pride in helping Black and Brown neighborhoods. He refused to be vaccinated against a pandemic that has left at least 5 million people around the world dead. That’s a perplexing travesty.
It’s amazing how much three months can make a difference in this turbulent world. Irving was not allowed to play for the Nets until Irving refused to comply with New York City’s mandates that workers at large venues like the Barclays Center or Madison Square Garden inoculate against the virus.
Why bother if Irving could only play when the team was on the move?
“Each member of our organization must pull in the same direction,” General Manager Sean Marks said.
The Nets wiggled. Like almost every team in the N.B.A., they’ve been trotting out patchwork lineups filled with minor-league replacements because Covid-19 protocols have sidelined so many regulars. Never mind that by this week, every player kept from the team because of positive coronavirus tests had returned — the Nets had cover to reverse course on Irving.
Brooklyn made a business decision and changed its principles. New York City is now engulfed by yet another coronavirus variant of this plague. Irving is back and adding to the bottom line of sports: winning, and the huge financial rewards that go along with it.
The Nets, already gifted with Kevin Durant and James Harden, are chasing a championship and Irving’s return brings with him not questions of wonder and potential, but of logistics.
Does Kyrie Irving give the Nets the best chance to win a championship if he can’t play at home, in Manhattan against the crosstown Knicks or in Toronto versus the rival Raptors because vaccination is a requisite for entering Canada?
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N.B.A. Deep continuity is key to championship basketball. It requires a roster full of teammates who know one another’s every last on-court tendency. It flows with the rhythmic timing and rhythm of a Miles Davis quintet. Irving is Irving a better Nets player? Or will they be unable to get into that title-winning groove by constantly moving Irving in and out of their lineups through the regular season, and into the playoffs?
We’ve seen no better N.B.A. tandem, no better groove than Curry and Thompson playing off one another before Thompson’s initial injury. Even when the team had Durant, the most potent basketball force on the planet, the two longtime guards were the Warriors’ beating heart. (Aided, as we know, by DraymondGreen.
Golden State has been a great team this season. They are currently at the top of the league standings, with Curry at league M.V.P. level. Thompson’s return will make everything feel just right.
His return could happen as soon Sunday, when the Warriors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers. It would be 941 days since he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in the left knee during the 2019 N.B.A. finals, and 417 days since he ripped his right Achilles’ tendon while working out.
The N.B.A. was without a player for most of that time. The N.B.A. has been missing one of its most skilled shooters and best defenders. A player who was popular enough to keep fans and most of league amazed by even the smallest detail. viral video clipsHe is doing well. There’s Thompson with his bulldog Rocco, cruising in a cool convertible. Or captaining his 37-foot fishing boat on the San Francisco Bay, gushing about the return: “I get chills when I think of coming back, I can’t wait!”
Or practicing with the Warriors’ developmental team, hitting a dart-like 3-point game-winner.
There is no N.B.A. more touching than this. This year, there was perhaps no more touching N.B.A. moment than when Thompson, in street clothes following a home win against Portland Trail Blazers sat on the bench and held a towel over his forehead as he grieved about all he had lost.
“Two-plus years is a long time,” Curry said in a November interview, speaking of his backcourt mate’s return. Curry said he’d figured this season would be the hardest part of Thompson’s journey, since he was practicing with the team and oh-so-close to an official return.
“We’re talking weeks instead of months now,” Curry added.
We are now talking days.
Thompson’s return will spark plenty of examination, but it won’t have to do with whether he has done all he can to protect himself and others from the virus. It will be all about basketball. Can he return to his former self? And which team in the league can stop him if he does so?
The Warriors’ prime nemesis may well be Brooklyn. To be Golden State’s spoiler, or to win the title from some other Western Conference team, it will need to fire on all cylinders. It will need continuity, timing, and trust that can only come from the Nets’ Big Three playing together full time.
Don’t count on it.
Source: NY Times