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A ‘grateful’ Kyrie Irving returns to Nets practice after vaccination standoff

Kyrie Irving is getting closer to making his 2021-22 season debut after ending his months-long standoff with the Brooklyn Nets over his unvaccinated status. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Kyrie Irving returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since the Brooklyn Nets sent him home in mid-October, telling reporters that he was “incredibly grateful” to be back after a two-month standoff prompted by his refusal to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“Welcomed back with open arms from my teammates, the whole entire organization,” Irving said. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been relatively tough to watch from the sidelines with everything going on in the world. I know everybody is feeling it. I’m just praying for everybody to be healthy during these times. … When I thought about [returning] last night, I could barely sleep.”

The stalemate between the Nets and their star guard was prompted by New York City health guidelines, which bar unvaccinated players such as Irving from taking the court at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden. Back in October, team owner Joe Tsai and General Manager Sean Marks said the Nets wouldn’t entertain the idea of utilizing Irving as a part-time player, even though Irving would be eligible to play in most road games because the NBA itself doesn’t have a vaccination mandate for players. Marks explained at the time that it was “imperative that we continue to build chemistry as a team” given the Nets’ championship aspirations.

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But the Nets reversed course on their part-time player policy Dec. 17, when Marks said Irving would be allowed to return on a part-time basis as the organization battled a severe coronavirus outbreak that stretched its roster and placed an undue burden on Kevin Durant and James Harden.

Brooklyn (23-9) sits atop the Eastern Conference standings, but it had three games postponed before Christmas thanks to the NBA’s struggles with the omicron wave. Durant, Harden, LaMarcus Aldridge and several other key Nets have spent time in the league’s health and safety protocols this month, and Marks said Irving’s return would “allow us to more optimally balance the physical demand” on his roster.

Irving himself entered the health and safety protocols a week before Christmas, but he was cleared on Tuesday along with Durant and Aldridge, allowing him to practice with the team Wednesday.

“I wouldn’t call it a change of heart,” Irving said of Brooklyn’s about-face. “I respected their decision: Either you’re all in or unfortunately you’re going to have to wait on the sidelines until things calm down with the mandate or these cases. … I knew the consequences. I wasn’t prepared for them, by no stretch of the imagination, coming into the season. I had my thought process on being able to be a full-time teammate and just go out and have fun and provide a great brand of basketball. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen like that.”

Although the Nets withheld Irving’s paychecks for home games because of his ineligibility, the seven-time all-star said he felt consistent support from Durant and Harden throughout the ordeal. The three stars, he noted, had teamed up with the intent of “striking while the iron was hot” during their respective primes.

As of yet, there don’t appear to be any hard feelings regarding Irving’s absence. Durant said on a recent podcast that this was “the perfect time to add a fresh body back into the equation” because the Nets had been “ravaged by covid,” while Harden said in an ESPN interview this week that “it’s going to be elite” to have Irving back.

“I didn’t put too much pressure on them and they didn’t put too much pressure on me,” Irving said. “We just respected each other’s boundaries.”

Before Wednesday, the 29-year-old Irving hadn’t spoken to reporters since Brooklyn’s media day Sept. 27, though he did host an Instagram Live video in mid-October in which he explained that he was “uncomfortable” with New York City’s vaccination mandate.

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After his first practice, Irving said the Nets approached him about a possible return this month and that the two sides enjoyed a “good conversation” in which he expressed his desire to return, even if it meant only being eligible for road games. Irving’s return timeline was then delayed slightly by his Dec. 18 entry into the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

“This is always what I wanted it to be,” he said. “There’s nothing like being in this environment. This is where I belong. This is where I’ve worked my entire life to be. It’s like riding a bike or being at your first day of school again. I missed it.”

Nets Coach Steve Nash said Irving will go through at least one week of conditioning work before he returns to the court. Seven of Brooklyn’s next nine games are at home, meaning that games at the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 5 and the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 12 will be Irving’s next opportunities to take the court. He hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury during June’s Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Without Irving, the Nets have claimed the East’s top seed thanks to MVP-level play from Durant, improving production from Harden and key contributions from the likes of veteran guard Patty Mills. But Brooklyn’s offense has slipped from No. 1 in efficiency last season to 10th this season, and the 33-year-old Durant has been forced to play 37 minutes per game, his highest mark since his 2013-14 MVP season, when he was 25.

Irving’s long-anticipated return will spark chatter about a possible playoff rematch with the Bucks and rekindle the Nets’ hopes of reaching their first Finals since 2003 and of winning their first NBA title.

“We have the talent and the IQ to blend together,” Irving said. "This is going to be a new situation, a new circumstance that we’re going to have to adjust to. It’s just going to take some patience.”

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