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Sunday basketball notes

Kyrie Irving is ready to return to the Nets, but how will he fit in as a part-time player?

Kyrie Irving (center) could be days away from taking the court with James Harden (left) and Kevin Durant once again.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Kyrie Irving returned to the Brooklyn Nets saying all the right things. He was humble and gracious after missing the first 2½ months of the season because he refused to be vaccinated and the Nets refused to play him part time.

The Nets had a change of heart, allowing Irving to practice and play in road games — a New York mandate bars Irving from playing in home games while unvaccinated — and he is expected to make his debut Wednesday at Indiana.

In the end, Irving gets what he wants. He gets to play without being vaccinated. The Nets have championship aspirations and Irving could be a key component to a long playoff run, so the sides need each other.

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Yes, Irving needs the Nets. He has to resuscitate his reputation and image after being accused of quitting on his team. Many NBA players have come out publicly to express their opinions against vaccination but said they agreed to be vaccinated in order to play basketball and help their teams. Marcus Smart and LeBron James said they were vaccinated for the express purpose of being allowed to play.

Irving didn’t feel that strongly, and stood by his beliefs and watched his teammates struggle and labor through a COVID-hindered season. But now he’s back, and he appears ready to follow the team concept. Or at least that’s what he says.

“Incredibly grateful just to be back in the building, back in open arms to my teammates, the entire organization,” he said. “Not going to lie, it’s been relatively tough to watch from the sideline, with everything going on in the world, I know that everybody’s feeling it and just praying for everybody to be healthy during these times. But if I get an opportunity to play with my teammates, even if it’s on the road for away games. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

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Can the Nets trust Irving? That remains to be seen. He is up for a contract extension this summer and the Nets have to decide whether to invest in him long term. His on-court talents have never been questioned. He is one of the most skilled point guards of all time. But Irving freely admitted during his Boston days that he’s not an 82-games-a-year type of player and has made more headlines off the court than on during his Brooklyn tenure.

He has played in 74 games in nearly 2½ seasons with the Nets, missing most of his first season with a shoulder injury and most of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks with a sprained ankle.

Kyrie Irving has only played 74 games in two and a half seasons in Brooklyn.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The Nets were primed for a bounce-back season with Kevin Durant and James Harden healthy, and then Irving decided not to get vaccinated. During training camp, he said he believed he was going to be allowed to play and then the NBA and city of New York changed the guidelines.

Irving refused vaccination, stayed away from the team, and said he worked out in high schools and college gyms to stay in shape. The Nets lightened their restrictions on Irving two weeks ago and then he was immediately placed into COVID-19 protocols when he tested positive.

“Just a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “A lot of what ifs, a lot of scenarios. It’s hard not to pay attention to what’s being said about the circumstances we’re under and everybody’s opinion on it. Waiting for the chance when things settle down. When the team approached me we had a good conversation. I wanted to be playing with the team in whatever capacity I can do that.”

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Irving obviously wants to smooth over any ill will with the Nets. He has a lucrative extension at stake as well as the respect and regard of his teammates, who were forced to move forward without him.

Harden asked out of Houston and helped facilitate a trade to Brooklyn with the express purpose of winning a title, alternating with Irving at point guard and shooting guard. The plan was for the trio to overcome defending champion Milwaukee and take over the East. And then the Nets banned Irving unless he was going to be a full-time player.

“I respected their decision,” Irving said of the Nets. “We wanted everybody to remain safe and that was the reason behind it. I understood that and I respected it. With James and K [Durant], they’ve always been supportive. Us getting together in our career, we wanted to take advantage. We have a lot more left in the tank, but our age between us three, us being at a certain level of mastery in this game, is only going to last a certain type.”

Irving said relations between him and the Nets were cordial the past few months. He didn’t blame them for the city’s mandate. The sides went their separate ways until deciding to reconnect. No hard feelings from Irving. He said he wants to play ball.

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“When you throw in a state mandate that everybody has to follow, it’s not up to them; it’s not up to the team; I didn’t put too much pressure on them,” Irving said. “They didn’t put too much pressure on me. We just respected each other’s boundaries. It was tough and I was resilient, but it’s nothing like being in this environment and playing with the best of the best. There is where I belong. It’s like riding a bike.”

How will Irving blend with coach Steve Nash’s concepts, mesh with his teammates, and deal with the likely adverse fan reaction on the road? Those questions will be answered over the next several weeks. Irving seems to think he can continue the momentum he carried into last season.

“It goes back to what I said when James officially got here. We have the I.Q. to blend together,” Irving said. “But this is going to be a new situation that we’re going to have to adjust to and it’s going to take some patience. Whatever it takes for me to get into the swing of things, that’s what I’m going to do.”

AGING GRACEFULLY

James found ways to refine his game

LeBron James has long been basketball's greatest problem-solver, and his game continues to evolve at 37.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

LeBron James turned 37 on Thursday, and his game has changed. James is no longer the freakishly athletic player without refined offensive skills. He is a basketball mastermind, thinking two or three steps ahead of his opponents with passing, floor leadership, and an all-around skill set. Instead of thunderous dunks, James makes backhanded layups. He has mastered the step-back jumper and can still stun opponents with a chase-down block.

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As he grows older, James will field more questions about his basketball mortality. How much longer will he play? Can a player who takes immaculate care of his body play productively into his 40s? James remains a physical beast but has been more susceptible to injuries over the past few years — especially to his lower extremities.

He said there is no blueprint from past players that he follows to maintain his high level of play. Most of the all-time greats were retired or shells of their former selves by age 37. The Lakers still are so reliant on James, despite the presence of Anthony Davis, who has been injured or ill-equipped to seize the No. 1 role.

So James is walking an unprecedented path. At 37, he is by far the best player on a playoff-contending team. He has shown few signs of decline.

“I’ve always respected the generation that came before me and I’ve always saluted the guys that set the stones for us to be here,” James said. “But I’ve never studied anybody’s game or career and what I can implement for myself. I’ve always had my own path and my own determination and grind. I’ve literally put in the work every day, either from a mental, physical, or spiritual part. The game is always running through my veins and I’m always thinking of ways to continue to improve my game throughout the later stages of my career. That’s what it’s about.”

James had flattering comments for Memphis guard Ja Morant, who took over Wednesday’s matchup in the fourth quarter and scored 25 of his 41 points in the second half. Most All-Star players are reluctant to discuss emerging stars, but James had nothing but kudos for Morant.

“The more games you play, the more minutes you log when you’re a special talent, you’ll understand how defenses play you, you’ll understand how you can penetrate defenses, how you can keep defenses off balance,” James said. “When you shoot the ball as well as he did tonight from the perimeter, with his speed and his athleticism, it’s going to be hard to contain a guy like that because when he’s doing all three levels of scoring, there’s nothing you can do. He has you at his bay.”

James said there was no excuse for any NBA player not to improve as his career progresses.

“We all have the same opportunity to get better in this league,” he said. “Literally all we do is travel, play ball, travel, and play ball. If you don’t get better in this league then you don’t want it for yourself. It’s literally that simple.”

ETC.

Beal leaning

on his faith

Bradley Beal was openly against being vaccinated last season and said his reasons were personal. After being released from COVID-19 protocol this past week, the Wizards guard revealed he has been vaccinated after much consideration and reflection.

“The frustrating part for me was I was negative the entire time,” he said. “And I missed three games because of it. I didn’t have COVID and I missed three games because of it. When we came back everybody was like running up to us, giving us hugs like we’re new kids on the block.”

Coming out against vaccination has become an unpopular stance for professional athletes, especially with the acceleration of COVID-19. The NBA placed more stringent restrictions on players who were not vaccinated, despite the Players Association fighting against vaccination mandates.

In other words, players were going to have the right to remain unvaccinated but their livelihoods would be more difficult. Beal said he embraced vaccination to make his and his family’s life easier.

“This is always something I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “It came to a point where I get it out of the way and not deal with it. There are questions I still have. 90 percent of our league is vaccinated and we’re still going down like flies. We’re just trying to make sure we’re well protected. I’m more concerned about my father and my family. The last thing I want is to see him in the hospital and unstable. If that helps then I’ll do it.”

Beal is trying to lead the Wizards back to the playoffs and he acknowledges he has felt the pressure of being a franchise cornerstone. He also said he decided to allow his spirituality to become a guide for his self-esteem. Beal, one of the game’s premier scorers, said he decided to stop being so hard on himself.

Beal is experiencing a difficult statistical season. He’s averaging 8 fewer points than last season and his 3-point percentage has dipped to a career-low 28.7. Even elite players experience slumps. Beal said he wanted to ensure he didn’t succumb to lofty expectations, so he decided to lean more on his faith.

“Nobody is going to push themselves harder than I do, but why?” he said. “I know who I am. I’m confident in who I am. I’m Bradley Beal. Don’t take the joy out of the game. We’ve played the game since we were little. I would take back everything I said about myself. I’m super critical about myself.

“I’ve taken a backseat to everything in my life. I just let things happen. Whatever happens, I’m not in control of it. It’s an inner battle I’ve had with myself the last couple of months. Just realizing, I’m not him. I can’t make people happy all the time.”

Layups

After a 10-day stint with the Lakers, former Celtic Isaiah Thomas has latched on with the Mavericks.José Luis Villegas/Associated Press

Isaiah Thomas fulfilled his quest to return to the NBA, but again his comeback has been beset with bad luck and misfortune. Thomas signed a 10-day hardship contract with the Lakers, but that deal was not renewed as Los Angeles went 0-5 during his stint. That wasn’t all Thomas’s fault, but the Lakers wanted to go in a different direction with backcourt players returning from COVID protocols and signed former lottery pick Stanley Johnson. Johnson has played well with the Lakers and is likely to stay on past his 10-day contract. Thomas, meanwhile, got a call Tuesday from the Mavericks while shopping in a Seattle grocery store and was in uniform for Wednesday’s game against the Kings, in which he scored 6 points to go with four assists. But he was placed in COVID protocols Thursday and that could use up his 10-day contract. NBA insiders have said Thomas can still score, but defense has been an issue. Thomas wasn’t a great defender during his time with the Celtics, but coach Brad Stevens was able to hide him in key possessions because and he scored at such a prolific rate he had to be on the floor. There has been more than one team interested in Thomas since he led Team USA in scoring during World Cup qualifications, and as long as Thomas can score and knock down 3-pointers, there will be a demand … One of the more inspiring stories this season is the ascension of the Cavaliers, who have turned into a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference as their long rebuild is nearly over. Coach JB Bickerstaff took over for former University of Michigan coach John Beilein, who resigned after 54 games in his first season as coach in the 2019-20 season. Bickerstaff was supposed to be a stop-gap coach until a more-qualified and prestigious candidate became available, but Bickerstaff himself emerged as that man. The Cavaliers signed him to a multiyear contract extension, ensuring the 42-year-old will stay in Cleveland. The Cavaliers have been besieged with injuries, including to former lottery pick Collin Sexton and most recently to point guard Ricky Rubio, but have emerged as a menacing defensive team because of their size, while Darius Garland, who scored 28 points recently against the Celtics, is developing into an All-Star-caliber player.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.