Irving had 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting to go with four rebounds and three assists, leading the Nets to a 108-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday at Barclays Center. Although he played only 20 minutes, Brooklyn had a plus-22 point differential while he was in there.
Irving was sidelined for 26 games due to a right shoulder injury. He recently returned to practice, and Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said the point guard would start Sunday night. Three hours before tipoff, Irving was on the court shooting. He took jump shots and 3-pointers, whizzed around the court exercising his famous handles and practiced free throws.
By the looks of his pregame warm-up, bystanders wouldn’t have been able to guess that Irving hadn’t played since mid-November because of an impingement. He released shots without a hitch, even though his shooting arm required a cortisone shot last month.
Irving said last week that surgery could still be a consideration if there were no improvement, but he took part in full workouts during the week, and Atkinson said Irving is ready.
His effort helped Brooklyn to a second straight win, following a season-high seven-game losing streak, and a renewed vigor was present from the team, both on the floor and on the bench.
Atlanta played without Trae Young, who has a left hamstring injury. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said his second-year star received treatment Saturday but still felt soreness Sunday. Brandon Goodwin started in his place and had 8 points, 4 rebounds and 2 steals.
The Hawks’ decision kept the fans from a Young-Irving matchup of the two Eastern Conference leaders at guard in fan voting for the All-Star Game.
Without Irving this season, the Nets have a 13-13 record. Spencer Dinwiddie, who moved from the sixth man slot to starting point guard in Irving’s absence, started alongside Irving on Sunday, finishing with seven points and eight assists. The Nets had never started the two together. Jarrett Allen, Taurean Prince and Joe Harris also started.
Typically, the Nets exercise extreme caution when it comes to bringing back injured players. Caris LeVert, who missed nearly seven weeks due to a thumb injury, was a starter before his surgery in mid-November. Sunday marked his fourth game back from injury, and he has yet to start. LeVert had 13 points vs. the Hawks.
“We treat every player individually,” Atkinson said pregame. “I can just say, yes, we are conservative, but we are about player care first and foremost.”
Information from ESPN’s Malika Andrews and The Associated Press was used in this report.