After missing 26 games with a right shoulder injury, Nets star guard Kyrie Irving was back in the starting lineup for Brooklyn when they hosted the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night, and despite the long layoff Irving looked a lot like his usual self as he helped the Nets secure a 108-86 victory. The All-Star guard dropped 21 points against the Hawks while missing just one shot from the field (10 of 11). He also added 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. Irving played just 20 minutes in the game, but that was mainly the result of the fact that the Nets held a commanding lead for the vast majority of the contest and not any conditioning issue, as Irving looked like he could have played more after nearly two months on the sideline.  

“I really missed the game of basketball,” Irving said after the game. “I’m grateful to be out here. I worked extremely hard to get back. We got a long season ahead of us, a lot more goals to accomplish, and it started tonight. … I love the game man, I missed it so much.” 

Irving had been progressing toward a return for quite some time, as he began playing 2-on-2 a couple of weeks ago, and participated in a full practice, including 5-on-5 contract drills, on Thursday. The Nets played .500 basketball (13-13) in his absence. Surgery was on the table for Irving, but he opted instead for a cortisone shot so that he could return to the court quicker, though he did seriously consider having the procedure done. 

“Yeah, it definitely crossed my mind,” Irving said of surgery last week, via  “I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that, but I felt that the next step in the progression is to get the cortisone and see how it responds and then move on from that point. … You either continue to get cortisone shots, which is obviously detrimental to your health in your muscles, or you go get arthroscopic surgery. For me, it’s just about being able to go back out there after the right amount of rehab, the right amount of rest, recovery, and see what we can do for the rest of the season and then reevaluate after a few months.” 

The Nets are obviously happy to have Irving back out on the floor considering the fact that he is one of the most dynamic guards in the entire league, and that they made a major investment in him over the offseason. The Nets currently sit eighth in a surprisingly crowded Eastern Conference playoff picture, and with Irving back they will try to climb up the standings. 

Irving’s return does create an interesting dilemma for Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, though. Spencer Dinwiddie had been playing some All-Star-caliber ball while starting at the point position in Irving’s absence. On the season he’s averaging 22.5 points, 6.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds — numbers that represent career highs for the sixth-year guard, and his play has been a big reason that the Nets have been able to stay in the playoff picture. Now that Irving is back, does Atkinson move Dinwiddie back to a reserve role, or does he start Irving and Dinwiddie together in Brooklyn’s backcourt and make adjustments elsewhere? 

Atkinson has certainly considered his options, but he hasn’t committed to any specific rotations yet. Instead, it’s likely that Brooklyn’s rotation will be fluid for a while, as Atkinson tinkers to see which combinations of players work best together. On Sunday night, he started Irving and Dinwiddie together while bumping Caris LeVert down to the bench. 

“That’d be a tough tandem to match up with,” Atkinson said of playing Irving and Dinwiddie together last week. “And Spencer can obviously guard off the ball easy — he’s 6-6 — so that’s good, too. And Spencer’s a two-way player. It’s exciting to think what it could be. You could have Caris, Kyrie and Spencer. You know, that was kind of obviously in the original plans. You could play them as a finishing lineup. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that at all. My job at the end of the day is to do the best for the team, what’s going to fit best for the team concept.” 

No matter what Atkinson does, Dinwiddie’s usage and opportunities are going to drop, as Irving excels with the ball in his hands, and he will have it, a lot (Dinwiddie scored just seven points on seven shots on Sunday night). Overall though, the Nets’ outlook is obviously improved, as teams will now have to account for two dynamic guards when they play them. Brooklyn won’t reach its full potential as a team until Kevin Durant joins the active roster next season, but Irving’s return should certainly provide them with a big boost for the rest of this season. 

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