Kyrie Irving said he had missed basketball so much after returning from a two-month injury lay-off to power the Brooklyn Nets to victory over the Atlanta Hawks with a near-perfect shooting performance.
Irving had not played in two months and all he did in his return was make 10 of 11 shots in the best shooting night of his career.
The point guard scored 21 points in 20 minutes in his return from an injured right shoulder, leading the Nets to a 108-86 victory over the Hawks on Sunday. It was his first Nets appearance since November 14.
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Irving made a career-best 90.9 per cent of his shots after missing 26 games with a shoulder impingement. His shoulder looked fine and his handle looked as good as ever while he dribbled his way around a hopeless Atlanta defense.
"Hell of an experience to play in front of these fans again," Irving said in an oncourt post-game interview. "I really missed the game of basketball. I'm really grateful to be out here. I worked extremely hard to get back. We have got a long season ahead of us and a lot more goals to accomplish. It started tonight and we have got to continue to do it.
"Coming back, having the support from my team-mates and having my family here watching, it is always a great joy. I love the game. I missed it so much."
Irving said he was not shocked by his performance: "It is not really a surprise for me. I put in the work and when I do that I feel like the results will come."
Energised by Irving's return, the Nets led by 39 points and won their second straight game after dropping seven in a row.
"We had a certain confidence about us tonight that I think we were missing during that streak," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "So great, great timing having him back."
The Nets made it such an easy night their fans did not need to worry about the scoreboard as they roared for Vince Carter's two three-pointers in the fourth quarter. The 42-year-old former Nets star finished with eight points in his final road appearance against the franchise.
"Obviously to come back here, and some of the other stops I've played for, and just kind of to receive a standing O for one last time is just great," Carter said.
Carter got a nice ovation when he checked in and a loud one when he checked out for good. He spent four-and-a-half seasons with the franchise when it was in New Jersey and is third on the Nets' scoring list.
Irving grew up in New Jersey as a fan of Carter and the Nets, and said he had Carter's jersey in his bag.
"That was a kid's dream to go see Vince Carter and Jason Kidd play, but specifically Vince Carter. He used to do some amazing things," Irving said. "It was incredible as a kid to watch."
Asked about his hopes for the second half of the season, Irving said: "We can be very dangerous but we have got to play together. That's the most important thing. We have got to sacrifice for one another and do the right things on the defensive end. If we do that, we will be OK."
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NBA Gametime analysts Brian Shaw and Kevin McHale broke down Irving's triumphant return.
"For people who thought [Kyrie] might be rusty, he went into his bag of tricks and showed every aspect of what he brings to the table," Shaw said. "He fed Jarrett Allen for an easy dunk, something I think he needs to do a bit more. [He showed] his off-the-dribble ability and made tough shots in traffic. If you sag off him too much, he can pull up from three and knock it down. In terms of his handles, he still has all of that. He is one of the best lay-up masters in the league."
McHale said Irving must focus on team-building and leadership now he is back in the Nets' fold.
"[If I am Kyrie] I am going to develop a relationship with each of my team-mates and make them better players by helping them," he said. "Bringing everybody together so [the team] is a unit where [players] really want to fight for each other."