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With Nets drama behind him, Kyrie Irving returns to the NBA Finals with the Mavericks

One season after forcing his way out of Brooklyn, former Nets star Kyrie Irving finds himself back in the NBA Finals again.

Following Dallas’ convincing 124-103 defeat of the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday, a serene Irving told reporters that he had patiently waited seven long years to return to this stage. But many thought Irving was destined to return to the NBA Finals years sooner, when he teamed up with Kevin Durant and James Harden in Brooklyn, forming a formidable Big 3 that was supposed to compete for championships indefinitely.

It did not work out and Irving was ultimately rejected in Brooklyn — much of it because of his own doing. He sat out most of the 2021-22 season after declining to meet New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, then served an eight-game suspension the following season for tweeting a link to a documentary critics slammed as antisemitic. But the eight-time All-Star has kept his nose clean since and has been fully embraced in Dallas, now four wins away from his second NBA title and first since his early days with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.

“It feels great, man. I definitely don’t take this moment for granted because of how hard we had to work to get here, and we had to earn our spot into the NBA Finals… It has been seven long years, but it’s also felt like the right amount of time in order to reward myself, be in the locker room with my teammates and enjoying it. Long time coming, so we’re going to enjoy this, but we obviously know this is just a pit stop in the journey and we have to get ready for that court turning gold, as I like to say.”

Irving, Durant and Harden’s time together in Brooklyn was far more limited than anyone could have anticipated, a tenure marred with injuries and off-the-court issues that created a storm of negative press. The trio won only one playoff series together. Harden was the first to go. Then Irving forced his way to the Mavericks and Durant wound up in Phoenix.

After watching Irving return to the league’s biggest stage, while averaging 22.8 points on 48.5/42.1/82.8 splits along the way, some Nets fans have begun to view last season’s trade with Dallas in a more critical lens. A divorce made perfect sense for both Irving and Brooklyn at the time, and given Irving’s disgruntled history, he was labeled as a risk, which made any trade negotiations with him involved far more difficult.

All the Nets got in exchange for Irving was Spencer Dinwiddie, who is no longer with the team, and Dorian Finney-Smith, who could soon face a similar fate, as Brooklyn appears to be doubling down on fully rebuilding and developing young talent after the hiring of new head coach Jordi Fernandez.

Today that February 2023 trade screams highway robbery, but hindsight is always the best teacher.

Irving did not receive a tribute video when he returned to Barclays Center on Feb. 7 amid a cascade of boos, a 119-107 Dallas win in which he and Luka Doncic combined for 71 points. During that game, a fan sitting courtside asked Irving, who finished with 36 points, why he did not play as well during his time in Brooklyn. Irving replied, “Thank Mayor Adams for that, bro,” as seen in footage posted on social media.

After the game, Irving also reflected on his time in Brooklyn, where things went wrong, and took accountability for his part in the dysfunction.

“Conversations that needed to be had weren’t had before the trade deadline,” Irving said. “I don’t know if anything needed to be salvaged. I just think it was time to get my own peace of mind and go somewhere where I was able to thrive and be in a situation where I didn’t have to worry about behind-the-back talk or the media talk or not knowing how to able to handle real-life circumstances that [have] nothing to do with the game of basketball.

“I had to really take some moral stances that propelled me into a place in my life that I had to become accustomed to. There were some political things that were going on here as well that I couldn’t control, that I was responsible for. There were some things that I did on my own accord that I look back on, and they were mistakes, and I have to be accountable for those things. I’m not perfect, but one thing I can say is I’ve been able to learn from things.

“If I didn’t get injured versus the Bucks, do I still ask for a trade? If [Durant’s] foot wasn’t on the 3-point line [in a Game 7 loss to Milwaukee], are we talking about a different legacy here? If James doesn’t ask for a trade. All of the woulda, coulda, shoulda, wouldas, hopefully, 1717242060 we can just put that to rest and just move forward.”

Irving appears to have put the drama behind him, now helping another team to the Finals while forming arguably the best scoring backcourt in NBA history with Doncic. He claims to have done a great deal of self-reflection over the past few years, and it is evident in his actions, words and play.

“I’m grateful because it wasn’t an easy road, and I was able to grow as a person way beyond as quickly I was growing as a player,” Irving said. “When you’re in a professional environment such as this and you can only be judged by your on-court performances and what people say off the court, and they don’t know who you are, I think that’s a little unfair, but that’s the life we live in, and life is not fair all the time. So, I just stopped being a kid toward this industry and really grew up and grew my wings.”

Irving’s resolve will certainly be put to the test in these NBA Finals, facing an elite Boston Celtics team he once called his own before arriving in Brooklyn. His stint in Boston was filled with drama as well, from dangling trade demands to, at times, criticizing his younger teammates publicly.

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving scrapes his foot on the Boston Celtics logo at mid-court after they defeated the Celtics in Game 4 during an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving scrapes his foot on the Boston Celtics logo at mid-court after they defeated the Celtics in Game 4 during an NBA basketball first-round playoff series, Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Then after signing with the Nets, Irving burned sage around TD Garden, stomped on the Celtics’ logo at midcourt, further fueling the fire between him and the franchise. What comes next is anyone’s guess. But Irving believes this time around, he will face whatever is thrown at him with grace.

“I just developed a mentality to be able to brush off a lot of that stuff and realized when they’re talking about me or saying stuff about me as a teammate — it’s been a lot of people, too many people to name — but that’s not where my focus has been,” Irving said. “It’s always been on making sure my teammates understand who I am and what I want to accomplish with them and being selfless in my approach and also realizing that everyone’s going to have a past, everyone’s going to be judged for that, but I think putting your best foot forward and focusing on the future is the best place to be.”


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