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Kyrie: Been ‘pinching myself’ since mandate lift

MIAMI — When news first broke on Wednesday that the New York City mandate that prevented unvaccinated athletes from playing in home games has been lifted, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving said he had to keep pinching himself to make sure it was real.

On Thursday, New York City mayor Eric Adams announced the mandate was lifted, clearing the way for Irving to play in home games at Barclays Center, something he hasn’t been able to do all season.

“Please take my comment seriously when I say I’ve been pinching myself since Wednesday and Thursday because there was a time where I got my hopes really, really high and all the air just got let out,” Irving said at Nets’ shootaround ahead of Saturday night’s game in Miami.

“I didn’t want to get too excited. Still tonight, I’m trying to stay focused on this game. But I know tomorrow will eventually come and I’m looking forward to playing back in Brooklyn.”

And with the mandate issue behind him, Irving started to look ahead at what could be next for him and his teammates in the Brooklyn organization.

“To be honest, I signed up for this for the long run,” Irving said. “I love this year. I’m grateful. It has not been the prototypical year. But when I look at my teammates and I look at what we have as an organization. I’m looking for the long run and what we can do, legacy talk.”

Irving has a player option for next season at over $36.5 million. If he declined the player option, Irving could sign up to a five-year, $246 million extension since he has reached 10 years of service.

“For me, it has always been about being comfortable and loving where I’m at. I love it here,” Irving said. “Once that summer time hits, I know we’ll have some conversations but there’s no way I could leave my man 7 anywhere.”

No. 7, of course, is Kevin Durant. Irving and Durant signed together with Brooklyn in 2019.

“For me, our team sentiment is we want to build a legacy here and have something sustainable,” Irving said. “Not just put this together real quick and then see what happens. But we’re gonna do our best.”

The Nets play the Heat in Miami on Saturday night before turning around and traveling back to Brooklyn for a home game against the Charlotte Hornets. It will be Irving’s first game at home since June 7, Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Milwaukee.

Irving did say that while he was appreciative of Adams for lifting the mandate, he still felt there was more to be done.

“Like I’ve been saying from the beginning of all this, it’s never been about me,” Irving said. “Any special privilege or exemption, I think there are a lot of people dealing with real consequences from being unvaccinated. I don’t think it’s talked about enough in terms of our essential workers and people on the front lines. It’s a whole community of us that really want to stand together.”

On Friday, Durant told reporters that he was glad the Irving situation was behind them.

“It’s a long time coming,” Durant said. “It’s an exciting time for Brooklyn Nets fans and New York fans to see one of our own back on the floor at home. It means a lot to our team, happy to have him back, and look forward to finishing the season strong.”

At 38-35, the Nets are the No. 8 seed in the East, three games back of Toronto for No. 7 (the Raptors are tied with the Cavaliers but Cleveland has the tiebreaker). Brooklyn also holds just a half game lead on the Hornets and a 1½ lead on the Atlanta Hawks.

Six of the Nets final nine games are at home — and one of the road games is at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks — so the team is hopeful the consistency of having Irving back in the lineup full-time will pay off.

“Every game has felt ultra-important for the last 20 games, the last month. Me being in and out hasn’t helped in terms of our continuity and guys being in and out of the lineup. I think it’ll definitely give us some consistency,” Irving said. “But it could finally get us out of this do or die game mentality.

“Every game, everyone is fixated … let me just call a spade a spade, we’re in the 8th spot and we’re picked to be contenders. If that’s not a true testament to the talent level we have on this team, I don’t know what is. I appreciate the respect. But honestly, it takes a little bit longer to build that continuity and we’re using these games and practice time but we’re just gonna put our best foot forward and live with the results.

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