It had to end this way, of course: the basketball in Kyrie Irving’s hands, 17,732 eyes laser-focused on him. There were 14.5 seconds left in overtime. The Nets trailed Minnesota 127-126, and Irving was going to rectify that. He already had 50 points in the bank. He had a couple more to get.
Who was going to tell him no?
“I wanted to win this for the fans, for my teammates,” he would say. “We all did.”
It isn’t possible to welcome a new town, a new team, and a new base of fans any more spectacularly than Irving did, in the Nets’ opener against the Timberwolves at Barclays Center. Certainly no other Net had ever introduced himself like this before.
Eighteen years ago, Jason Kidd served up what would become a standard menu for him in his time over in East Rutherford — 14 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists — and the Nets had beaten the Pacers in his debut, but there were all of 8,749 people at the Meadowlands that night. He was the tree falling in the swamp, with no one there to hear it.
Forty-six years ago, Julius Erving poured in 38 in his first home game as a Net, a dazzling array of dunks and gravity-defying jumpers, and the Nets had beaten Dr. J’s old team, the Virginia Squires, 116-105. But again, the Nassau Coliseum was less than half full that night, just 7,202 in the house.
This? This was different. This was something else. From the start, Irving had the crowd in the palm of his left hand while he dribbled on a string with his right. From the start it was impossible to keep your eyes off him. He tried to get teammates involved but no other Net could hit the East River from the Manhattan Bridge in the first half, so Irving bore the burden himself.
“What I say to the point guards is, ‘Read the defense,’ ” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson would say later. “If the game calls for you to get 50 points, get 50. There will be other nights when it will be 15 assists.”
This game, it called out for Irving to keep shooting, and he did, and he was unstoppable — 17-for-33 from the field, 9-for-10 from the line, 7-for-14 from 3.
“It was amazing to watch,” Jarrett Allen said, and though that was designed to praise, it also underlined how far these Nets have to go, how they have to adapt to their new star and vice versa. There were too many possessions when it looked like the Nets were as entranced by Irving’s wizardry as the fans were, and that’s going to have to change.
Still, on this night, that was as good a strategy as any. On three straight possessions down the stretch in regulation, Irving gave the Nets the lead: on a 3 with a hand in his face, with three free throws, then on a step-back rainbow 3.
That last one, with 1:16 left, put Brooklyn up 115-112 and looked sure to wrap things up for the Nets, so the crowd began celebrating, a raucous roll of thunder that was halted a few minutes later when Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (36 points, 14 rebounds of his own) answered with a 3.
“He can do almost anything with the ball,” Allen marveled. “He can hit almost any shot. I’m ready to set screen after screen for him if he goes off like that.”
So there was overtime. And Irving dominated that, too, reaching 50 with 36.8 seconds left to pull the Nets within a point, 127-126. Then Towns missed a 3, Irving got his eighth rebound of the night.
Now, he was set up for the perfect finish.
Now, the arena was poised to see something they’d be talking about the whole ride home, through breakfast Thursday, all the way to lunch. Irving knew it. His teammates knew it. The building knew it …
And then he lost his footing. He slipped. The ball got away from him, he recovered enough to heave up a desperate shot, the horn groaned, the fans sighed, the Timberwolves celebrated. It was like someone had hacked into the MGM archives and kept Dorothy in Oz forever, never let her go back to Kansas.
Not the ending anyone planned for.
Irving? He wanted the win. He said “now the 50 is just another number, doesn’t mean anything.” But he was philosophical. “We have 81 more to go,” he said. “We’ll learn from this. We’ll get better because of this.”
Of course, if this is what we can expect on a disappointing night …
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