Kyrie Irving said Wednesday night that he still hopes to return and play for the Brooklyn Nets but that “this is about my life and what I am choosing to do” as he explained his decision to not receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Irving, speaking on Instagram Live, said he is neither pro- nor anti-vaccine and that he fully understands the ramifications of his decision.
“The financial consequences, I know I do not want to even do that,” Irving said. “But it is reality that in order to be in New York City, in order to be on a team, I have to be vaccinated. I chose to be unvaccinated and that was my choice and I would ask you all to just respect that choice.
“I am going to just continue to stay in shape, be ready to play, be ready to rock out with my teammates and just be part of this whole thing. This is not a political thing, this is not about the NBA, not about any organization. This is about my life and what I am choosing to do.”
Irving spoke out on social media one day after the Nets decided to not allow their starting point guard to practice or play with them at all until he complies with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Irving made it clear that he is not upset with the Nets organization, his teammates or the NBA, and said he was not trying to make a political statement. He repeatedly said he respects doctors who continue to try to keep people safe and those who are vaccinated while also respecting those who aren’t vaccinated and “are being mandated to do this and are losing their livelihood.”
Nets general manager Sean Marks said Tuesday that the decision to not let Irving join the team until he gets at least one vaccine shot was ultimately made by him and team owner Joe Tsai. Marks also said Irving will lose only the money he was due to play in home games, which he is not allowed to do under New York City’s mandate.
If Irving misses every game in Brooklyn this season (including preseason games), along with the two regular-season games against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, he could lose over $17 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks and Tim Bontemps. Irving is also eligible to sign a four-year, $187 million extension with Brooklyn.
“You got to make these convictions yourself,” said Irving, who had not spoken publicly since Sept. 27, when he had to talk to reporters via videoconference call because he couldn’t join his teammates for media day due to New York City’s mandate. “‘Yo, you are going to lose out on money, you are going to lose out on this.’ So what. It is not about the money, baby. It is about choosing what is best for you.
“You really think I want to lose money? You think I really want to give up on my dream to go after a championship? You think I really just want to give up my job? Think I really just want to sit at home and not go after the things with my teammates that I have been able to grow with, to learn with, to learn that it takes sacrifice in this space. … You think I want to give up my livelihood because of a mandate, because I don’t have accommodations, because I am unvaccinated? Come on.”
Irving said he is “still uncertain about a lot of things and that is OK.”
“This is my life,” Irving said. “I get to do whatever I want with this, this is one body that I get here. And you are telling me what to do with my body. … This has everything to do with what is going on in our world. And I am being grouped into something that is bigger than just the game of basketball.”
Irving later added: “I am staying grounded in what I believe in. It is as simple as that. It is not about being anti-vax or about being one side or the other. It is just really about being true to what feels good for me. … If I am going to be demonized for having more questions and taking my time to make a decision with my life, that is just what it is. … I know the consequences of the decisions that I make with my life. I am not here to sugarcoat any of that.”
Irving ended his talk on Instagram Live by saying he is not going to end his career like this.
“Nobody is hijacking this voice,” Irving said. “See if they play this on their TV channels and if they play this actual truth somewhere before you start talking about me and what I am doing with my life. And no, I am not retiring. And no, I am not going and leaving this game like this. There is still so much more work to do.”
First impressions of Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and other rookie debuts
When the NBA’s 2021-22 schedule was released, fans of the incoming rookie class could circle Wednesday night as their first chance to see the top six picks from the 2021 NBA draft in action in the regular season. At least that was the plan, until Cade Cunningham suffered an ankle injury in training camp that kept the No. 1 pick sidelined for the entire preseason and for the Detroit Pistons‘ regular-season opener against the Chicago Bulls.
Still, while Cunningham wasn’t in uniform, No. 2 pick Jalen Green — the Rookie of the Year favorite — was, as were No. 3 pick Evan Mobley, No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes, No. 5 pick Jalen Suggs and No. 6 pick Josh Giddey. They all added their names to the list of nearly 4,600 players who’ve stepped onto an NBA court in the league’s 75-year history.
Did Green look like the Houston Rockets’ franchise star? Did Mobley play like the next great two-way player? Our experts break down the rookies’ debuts and what their respective teams can take away from the performances.
Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
DNP in 94-88 loss to Chicago Bulls
Kendrick Perkins and Dave McMenamin analyze who has the higher ceiling between Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham.
Cade Cunningham’s NBA debut has been put on hold thanks to a sprained right ankle he injured near the start of training camp. However, the Pistons seem optimistic the No. 1 overall pick from the 2021 draft will be playing in games soon. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver told a Detroit radio station Wednesday he “would anticipate hopefully seeing [Cunningham] when we get back off the road.” After opening at home with a loss to the Bulls, Detroit has three consecutive road games before hosting the Orlando Magic on Oct. 30.
The Pistons have been cautious with Cunningham, who missed the entire preseason, not wanting to rush him back until he feels 100%. He has returned to practice recently and there was some hope of him playing in the season opener, but the team wanted him to build up his conditioning. When he does return, Cunningham will immediately enter Detroit’s starting lineup as the centerpiece of their young core and most promising piece of their future. Even if there are some growing pains, the Pistons are going to give him a chance to play through it. Cunningham’s size — 6-foot-8 as a guard — shooting ability and passing vision made him the top draft pick out of Oklahoma State this summer and could make him one of the top contenders for Rookie of the Year.
— Jamal Collier
Jalen Green shows what he’s all about with the first two buckets of his NBA career.
Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, shot 34.7% from the floor and had more turnovers than assists during the first month of his career. Let that serve as a polite reminder for Rockets fans that patience is required with teenage shooting guards, no matter how talented.
Edwards, building off a strong finish to his rookie year, had a sensational start to his sophomore campaign at Houston’s expense, scoring 29 points in 31 minutes during the Timberwolves’ season-opening 124-106 rout of the Rockets.
Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick whom Houston hopes can emerge as a franchise centerpiece, certainly didn’t overwhelm anyone in his NBA debut. He finished with nine points on 4-of-14 shooting and was a game-worst minus-37 in 32 minutes.
Green arrived in the NBA with professional experience, having flourished with the G League Ignite fresh out of high school last season, but it’s no surprise that growing pains come with making the leap to the NBA as a primary offensive option for a rebuilding team.
There were glimpses of the talent that convinced the Rockets that Green had perennial All-Star potential. The first bucket of his career was a driving reverse layup over Karl-Anthony Towns that displayed Green’s rare athleticism. On the next possession, he had a crossover that caused Taurean Prince to stumble when the Minnesota wing got caught cheating toward the screen, leading to a lefty layup for Green. The rookie had four assists and no turnovers.
“That’s growth,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “That’s finding your way.”
These were the first awkward steps of a long journey for Green.
— Tim MacMahon
Evan Mobley gets the ball at the top of the key and goes in for the flush.
It didn’t take long for Evan Mobley to show exactly why general managers selected him as the rookie from this class most likely to be the best player when we look back five years from now.
The skilled, graceful 7-footer looked like a potential Rookie of the Year favorite in a narrow road loss to the Grizzlies, flashing the two-way versatility that earned him pre-draft comparisons ranging from Chris Bosh to Anthony Davis (who finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 0 assists and 1 block in his NBA debut).
Cleveland shifted Mobley all over the floor, playing him a team-high 38 minutes split between power forward and center. The Cavaliers used him as a creator from the elbows, played him out of short rolls, let him work as a ballhandler and facilitator, and spaced him out to the corner, where he knocked down a smooth catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.
Defensively, Mobley guarded the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. (3-for-12 from the field), Steven Adams, Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke, while regularly switching out onto Grizzlies guards with respectable success. Despite being credited with just one block, he changed several shots at the rim, highlighted by an impressive verticality challenge against Ja Morant.
Mobley did lose sight of Jackson on a few different occasions and got burned for open 3s. His lack of physicality came to light for stretches, with Adams and Jackson taking him out of plays with aggressive seals in the lane. Mobley’s light frame cost him on the offensive end inside the paint at times, as well.
But even with a few very common rookie miscues, Mobley proved he’s capable of playing next to a big like Jarrett Allen for spurts or a stretch four like Lauri Markkanen, which bodes well for the Cavs moving forward. With rare length, agility, touch and feel at his disposal, it might not take Mobley five years to prove that he’s indeed the best player to come out of a loaded 2021 draft class.
— Mike Schmitz
Scottie Barnes gets on the scoreboard as he floats in a lefty floater in the lane.
Despite starting in a unique lineup featuring three combo forwards and two lead guards, Barnes regularly initiated the offense. He utilized several on-ball picks as the decision maker off the dribble, but also set his share of screens for other ball-handlers as well, similar to a role Pascal Siakam played for Toronto last season.
Barnes broke down the defense off the dribble all night, but had difficulties finishing at the rim in traffic. However, he was able to draw enough defensive attention that at least one of his missed layups led to an uncontested putback dunk. Barnes’ strong passing won’t be reflected by paltry assist totals since the Raptors were ice cold for most of the game, but he did have a gorgeous assist midway through the fourth quarter, a one-handed bounce pass off the dribble to spoon feed Chris Boucher for the dunk.
Defensively, Barnes was the primary defender on Bradley Beal for a long stretch in the fourth quarter, during the time the Raptors went on a run to get back into the game. He did well moving his feet and staying in front of him, but Beal ran him off picks and the Raptors switched instead of letting Barnes fight through the pick.
On the downside, Barnes was overly aggressive on both ends of the floor, leading to six turnovers on offense and five personal fouls on defense, where he was too often caught falling for fakes or reaching to try to get his hand on the ball.
Still, Barnes’ debut held the promise of good things to come. He showed outstanding versatility at both ends of the court, flirted with a points-rebounds double-double and gave a glimpse of the positionless multi-tool player that the Raptors want him to grow into.
— Andre Snellings
Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
Jalen Suggs scores 10 points in his NBA debut on 3-of-14 shooting.
Jalen Suggs’ NBA debut probably won’t be one he tells his grandchildren about. He struggled offensively (10 points, 3-of-14 FG, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 30 minutes) in a disjointed, at times ugly, opening blowout loss for the Magic.
Suggs struggled to generate quality offense, settling for several difficult pullups from midrange and beyond the arc, while not finding much success around the paint either, running into brick walls or tossing up awkward floaters from difficult vantage points. Playing on and off the ball, he unselfishly looked to create for teammates but didn’t find a great balance between creating and distributing, leading to some tentative moments that forced Orlando into late-clock situations.
Suggs’ defense, considered a major selling point in college, was as good as advertised. He had multiple excellent one-on-one possessions that demonstrated his physical and aggressive approach getting over screens and containing opposing ball-handlers thanks to his quick feet and strong frame. While he had some issues losing his man off the ball, he made up for that by generating turnovers, sliding in for charges and showing terrific activity flying out on closeouts.
Suggs is clearly still adapting to the longer NBA 3-point line while attempting to figure out a role on the fly for one of the youngest teams in the NBA, one that features a dearth of perimeter shooting and playmaking. From what we saw Wednesday,, it looks like the Magic coaching staff will give Suggs a fairly long leash to play through mistakes, which should help him find more of a comfort level as he gains experience and develops better chemistry with his teammates.
— Jonathan Givony
4 PTS, 10 REB, 3 AST in 107-86 loss to Utah Jazz
Josh Giddey finishes off the glass for his first points on debut for the Thunder.
Going against the Utah Jazz (last year’s winningest team during the regular season) and center Rudy Gobert (the reigning Defensive Player of the Year), Giddey’s NBA baptism was a challenging one. Still, Giddey showed the potential that led Oklahoma City to take him sixth overall.
That was evident on Giddey’s first NBA score, less than five minutes in, as he drove the lane right at Gobert and scored a runner off glass going left as Gobert retreated to his man. In the second quarter, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault called an after-timeout play for Giddey, who took a handoff from Kenrich Williams and used the advantage to beat Jordan Clarkson off the dribble before pulling up for a score in the paint that was in between a floater and a jumper.
The second half was more of a reality check for Giddey, given the tall task of running the point for Oklahoma City just days after turning 19. He was scoreless in 15 minutes after halftime, missing all four of his shot attempts.
With Lu Dort handling the task of defending Utah star Donovan Mitchell, Giddey spent most of his time defensively in the corners. That freed him up to make an impact crashing the glass for grab-and-go opportunities. Giddey pulled down a team-high 10 boards, becoming the first player in Thunder history to reach double-figure rebounds in his debut.
— Kevin Pelton
Philadelphia 76ers regroup with team dinner before opening romp against New Orleans Pelicans
NEW ORLEANS — After a stressful day Tuesday with Ben Simmons being tossed out of practice and then suspended, the Philadelphia 76ers players gathered for a team dinner after flying to New Orleans in an effort to clear the air.
After laughing and getting their minds off basketball for a few hours, the 76ers assembled a strong opening showing by blowing out the New Orleans Pelicans 117-97 on Wednesday, showing good team chemistry along the way.
“It’s good to just go out and kinda not talk about basketball and talk about life,” said Joel Embiid, who scored 22 points and was able to take the fourth quarter off. “That’s also an evolution for me, because I usually, when I used to go on the road, I’d just like to stay in my room and be on the phone and play video games.”
During a big fourth-quarter run in which the team’s bench led a surge that put the game way, the 76ers’ bench was electric. After Furkan Korkmaz hit his fourth 3-pointer of the fourth quarter on his way to 22 points, starters Embiid and Tobias Harris embraced him as he came to the bench.
“[The players] have been normal, the only abnormal part is when they have to talk to the media afterwards and they’re asked questions [about Simmons],” coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s about playing basketball and growing together, and they’ve done a great job of that.”
Rivers said it was unlikely the team would practice Thursday with the team flight not scheduled to land in Philadelphia until after 2 a.m. Where that leaves Simmons, who is expected to return to team activities, for Friday’s home opener against the Brooklyn Nets is unclear.
With Simmons out and backup point guard Shake Milton injured, second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey scored 20 points starting in Simmons’ place and Korkmaz played out of his typical position in the backup point guard role.
“Our focus was always like zeroed into this game, but I think that just comes from a lot of guys having added opportunity here,” said Harris, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. “And really trying to figure out ways that they can maximize that type opportunity.”
New York Knicks outlast Boston Celtics in wild, albeit sloppy, double-overtime opener
NEW YORK — When the Knicks took a four-point lead with nine seconds to go in Wednesday night’s season opener against the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden, it appeared the home team was on the verge of a feel-good win to start Kemba Walker‘s Knicks career.
It turned out the Knicks were, in fact, going to win the game — it just wasn’t in the way anyone could have envisioned.
After an insane final nine seconds of regulation that saw the Celtics hit two 3-pointers in the final five seconds to tie the score, plus a pair of frenetic overtimes, New York eventually emerged with a 138-134 victory, snatching a win from the jaws of what would’ve been an excruciating season-opening defeat.
“The good thing, at the end of the day is we got the win,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Getting it, though, took a lot more work for New York than it initially appeared.
The trouble started after the other former Celtic starting in the Knicks’ backcourt, Evan Fournier, got free for a layup to push New York’s lead to 114-110 with nine seconds to go, sending the partisan fans inside MSG into a celebratory frenzy in anticipation of a win.
But then Jaylen Brown, who finished with 46 points, buried a 28-foot 3-pointer to pull the Celtics to within a point. After Julius Randle hit a pair of free throws to push the Knicks’ lead back to 116-113 with 4.9 seconds to go — and with Boston not having any timeouts — the plan was for the Knicks to foul.
“We had a play where we wanted to catch Jayson [Tatum] moving on the run,” Ime Udoka, coaching his first regular-season game Wednesday for Boston, said afterward of Boston’s plan.
The plan went awry, however, after Tatum grabbed the inbounds pass, slipped and fell. Instead of grabbing him, the Knicks players froze, allowing Tatum to get up and fire a pass to a wide open Dennis Schroder in the middle of the court. With everyone then scrambling to catch up, Schroder dribbled into the frontcourt, drew Walker toward him and swung a pass to Marcus Smart, who buried the game-tying 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded, leaving the building in shocked silence and sending the game to overtime.
“I just tried to get it up and I slipped,” Tatum said. “And then I saw [Fournier] came and doubled, threw it to Dennis and he found a wide-open Smart. He knocked it down and gave us a chance.”
From there, both teams spent the next 10 minutes of game action looking like exhausted heavyweight fighters trying to make it through the final rounds of a championship bout. After the teams each scored 12 points in the first two minutes of the first overtime, they combined to miss all 10 shots they took while going scoreless during the rest of it. That included an ugly miss by Tatum after he held the ball for a final shot.
Tatum finished 7-for-30 from the field and 2-for-15 from 3-point range.
“Sometimes you’ve gotta laugh at yourself,” Tatum said of his ugly shooting performance, shaking his head. “I guess I’m good for one of those a season.
“Hopefully that’s the last one. Get it out the way. We’ve got 81 more.”
The second overtime then devolved into a true slog, with each team only scoring once over the opening three minutes. But after Tatum pushed Boston into the lead with a nifty drive and an and-one finger roll, the Knicks responded with a Fournier 3-pointer and a floater by Derrick Rose on back-to-back possessions in the final minute providing New York’s final margin of victory.
“It was crazy,” Fournier, who finished with 32 points, said with a smile. “The atmosphere, the fans, the game itself — it was fun to go to OT, but I wish we had killed that game in the first 48 minutes.
“But it was a dogfight, really, especially toward the end. I’m sure you guys could see we were both tired.”
The craziness of the ending overshadowed the original reason Wednesday night’s game was significant: It was Walker’s debut as a Knick. The Bronx native with a certified legendary New York City basketball background — between his time at Harlem’s Rice High School and his exploits at the University of Connecticut in this arena — said he couldn’t believe he was hearing his name being called during pre-game introductions.
“So much was running through my mind,” said Walker, who flashed an “X” for his home borough, The Bronx, as he came out onto the court to a raucous ovation. “Just really couldn’t believe it. Really just playing for the home team.
“I’m really a kid from the Bronx, born and raised in this city. To put that jersey on for the first time, for the real regular season, and being announced, man … it was definitely an amazing feeling.”
Walker’s performance itself was a mixed bag. He finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four turnovers, including two ghastly ones on back-to-back possessions in the final 30 seconds of regulation that allowed Boston to begin creeping back into the game. He played 35 minutes and wound up being subbed out for Rose for the second overtime.
“I was disappointed,” Walker said when asked how he felt about his play late in regulation. “I was disappointed in myself a little bit. It was a little bit of a mental mistake on my behalf. It happens.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy, not smart things in my career. That was definitely one of them. But it happens. You’ve got to find a way to stick together. You got to find a way to come out on top, and that’s what we did.”
Walker, who was traded away by the Celtics this offseason, said he spent time with his former teammates after the game. He said it wasn’t weird playing against them in his first game as a Knick.
“Maybe if I was somewhere else it would’ve been weird,” Walker said. “But being that I’m with the home team, nah, it wasn’t weird. I just felt like everybody just kind of had my back, you know? My teammates, the city, the fans, everybody. It wasn’t weird. I have a lot of love for those guys. You could see it before the game. I have a great relationship, man.
“I just came from the locker room with those guys, talking to those guys. Those are my brothers. Those are my brothers. Over the last two years we became really close. So for me being on a different team, it’s not going to change anything.”
The feelings were mutual from the other side, as well.
“That’s my guy, man,” said Brown, whose 46 points were the most ever scored by a Celtics player in a season opener, surpassing Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Bob Cousy (35). “Can’t say enough good things about Kemba Walker. He’s just one of those guys that you like to be around, man.
“Kemba was great for me and my time in Boston. He was warm, he was accepting, he allowed me to be myself. Some guys get envious or things like that. Not Kemba Walker, man. So I’m very grateful for the time I spent and things I got to learn. It was great sharing the floor with him. I’m happy for him being in his hometown. I said hello to his family, his mom was at the game, so it was great.”
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