Mariano Rivera, who might have received the largest ovation of the night Saturday, watched from among the Barclays Center crowd as a different kind of New York closer took over.
When the Nets, who were playing without the injured Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons, needed a late-game weapon, there was just one player to turn to — the most prolific fourth-quarter scorer in the NBA.
Kyrie Irving emerged from the bench following a third-quarter breather to play the entire fourth quarter, scoring 21 of his 32 points to help the Nets seize control of a game that had hung in the balance and take a 122-115 victory over the Knicks.
“I think he leads the league in points in the fourth quarter,” Nic Claxton said of Irving, who now has 356 fourth-quarter points this season, 9.4 per game. “[We know Irving] is just going to show up every single time in the fourth quarter. It’s big.”
Irving sat for the final 3:16 of the third period, and while he was out, a Nets lead that had reached 18 was narrowed to seven.
Irving, who had consistently made the extra pass in the first three quarters, took control of the offense in the fourth. He went 8-for-15 from the field — after attempting a dozen shots in the first three quarters combined — and knocked down dagger after dagger, including a pair of 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds that halted Knicks runs.
“Being able to, as the game progresses, to understand what the team needs and what shot is needed,” head coach Jacque Vaughn said when asked to describe Irving’s brilliance. “Whether it’s a two, whether it’s a drive, whether it’s a drive-and-kick. … I think he’s in a great position of [knowing] what’s needed, and he’s delivering the need.”
The Nets’ edge was just four points in the final two minutes, when those daggers fell. Irving scored nine points in the final 1:19, effectively ending it himself with that pair of triples.
On the first of those, Irving used his pivot foot to create space from Quentin Grimes before rising and sinking the shot. On the Nets’ next possession, they milked the clock down before Irving hit another trey — his fifth of the night — to balloon their lead to 117-109 with 50.7 seconds left.
“I don’t really know what you’re supposed to do,” RJ Barrett said. “I mean, Quentin was playing great defense. It’s Kyrie Irving, man.”
Irving, who bounced between New Jersey and New York as a kid, has never lost to the Knicks while in a Nets uniform. He reminisced afterward of watching the rivalry growing up with his father or at friends’ houses and “admiring the guys playing on Madison Square Garden, the Continental Airlines Arena.”
“For me, I love beating the Knicks and playing against them,” Irving said. “But all in all, it’s just about the objective, which is winning the ball game. Nothing personal.”
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