Nets facing Celtics in Kyrie Irving NBA playoffs twist

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Kyrie Irving’s clean slate in the playoffs suddenly feels mucky.

After injuries forced him to watch teammates battle without his help two of the last three years — first with the Celtics in 2018 and then with the Nets in 2020 — a healthy Irving will return to the playoffs Saturday.

The twist? Irving’s former team — and scorned Celtics fans — await his No. 2 seed Nets after a win over the Wizards on Tuesday to clinch the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.

“Now that we’re here and we’ve got the guys that we have in this locker room and we’ve been through quite a journey, we just want to enjoy the ride,” Irving said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s really all I can say. I just want to enjoy it as if it’s my last.”

Last? Interesting choice of words considering Irving, 29, just wrapped arguably the finest season of his career — just the ninth player ever to finish a season shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line, 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from 3-point range — and plays for a team with a chance to become the NBA’s next dynasty.

“Super-efficient, deadly scoring the ball and was really sharp,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He’s a huge piece of what we do, and I think he’s mentally and physically in a really good place right now.”

Irving keeps basketball — even the big games about to start — in perspective against the political, social and racial movements happening around the world. So, does he ever wonder when the time is right to give up the NBA and follow other pursuits?

The Nets will face the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The Nets will face the Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Corey Sipkin

“Doesn’t everybody?” Irving asked rhetorically. “I mean, everybody thinks about it, especially with things that go on in most careers and what they feel like they have to give. It depends on what I have to give to this game or what I have left. It’s always a thought, but not really the most important thing for me right now to think about.”

Irving infamously told Celtics season ticket-holders at a private event in October 2018 that he planned to re-sign as a free agent if he was wanted back. Eight months later he had a change of heart, and he has played as a visitor at TD Garden just once since then — before crowds returned to games in the pandemic era.

“We’ll do our best to get ready for Brooklyn,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They’re the best of the best. As a fan of the NBA, it’s hard to see those guys losing. We’re going to have to play great together.”

The Nets swept the three-game season series from the Celtics.

“Honestly, I’m so far past matchups and all that,” Irving said when asked if he preferred to face the Wizards or Celtics in the first round. “It’s just about who’s going to prepare better, who’s going to execute out there. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve played in Boston plenty of times before I got traded there.”

The Celtics are led by Kemba Walker and two of Irving’s ex-teammates who were just coming into their own during his brief two-year stay, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. After reaching the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals, they have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams this season despite the excuse of losing Jaylen Brown to a season-ending injury.

Irving and Kevin Durant chose the Nets and formed the basis of a Big 3 now rounded out by James Harden. Durant also is making a long-awaited return to the playoffs after he ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals with the Warriors.

“We made a decision two years ago to stick with it and build something here,” Irving said. “No one really saw the vision that we had … but the intent here was we didn’t want to feel the same effects of being out in organizations or being out with different guys throughout this league that we felt like we couldn’t build something outside of the game with.”

Nash joked about watching the Celtics-Wizards game with a notepad in one hand and an adult beverage in the other. But the seriousness starts now, with scrimmaging set for practices Wednesday and Thursday, and the game plan and scouting report installation spread through Friday.

The Nets’ best weapon, however, might be what Irving describes as “synergy” between stars.

“A lot of situations and circumstances that we were in, we were trying to be ourselves but the environment just didn’t stick. It didn’t fit,” he said. “And when we came together, we just wanted to be happy. Happiness goes a long way in life, especially when you’re playing this game.

“Some guys are going to get along and it is going to go well and some guys it’s not and it breaks down toward the later stages of the season. I’m excited to be here. I don’t take any day for granted. It took a while to believe in this vision and we’re finally here — back to the playoffs.”

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