Kyrie Irving leads Nets to play-in win over Cavaliers, into playoff series vs. Celtics

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Kyrie Irving looked right at home in the arena he was effectively banished from much of the season.

He dribbled circles around defenders. He bent and leaned into shot after shot – and made them all for a while. Then, when he was finished carving up the Cavaliers, his face awash with bliss, he looked so at ease while holding court on the court.

As a result of his brilliant performance Tuesday, he can now prepare for unfriendly confines.

Irving scored 34 points to lead the Nets to a 115-108 play-in-tournament win over Cleveland. Already the third-favorite (behind only the Suns and Bucks) before tonight to win the 2022 title, Brooklyn now advances to the playoffs. The Nets will face the Celtics in the first round with Game 1 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Boston – with everything that entails for Irving.

One former team defeated, Irving can torment the Celtics yet again if he keeps playing like this. He made his first 12 shots tonight – a postseason record, according to TNT.

Kevin Durant added 25 points, as the stars showed why the Nets – now the No. 7 seed – are so dangerous. The top-seeded Heat can now breath a sigh of relief about avoiding Brooklyn in the first round.

Friday, the Cavaliers will play the winner of Hawks-Hornets (who play tomorrow) in a winner-take-all game for the No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup with Miami. Cleveland now faces the brutal prospect of it best LeBron James-less season in more than two decades ending outside the playoffs.

Darius Garland scored 34 points against the Nets, but he didn’t get nearly enough help. Maybe Cavs All-Star center Jarrett Allen will return from his finger injury Friday.

In part due to Cleveland’s defense, in part due to Irving’s (12 assists) and Durant’s (11 assists) unselfishness and in part due to Irving’s and Durant’s passiveness, Bruce Brown had an outsized impact tonight. Brown took more shots (19) than Durant (16) and Irving (15). A unique screening guard, Brown also thrived as a secondary playmaking in short rolls with eight assists.

Brooklyn let a 22-point third quarter lead dwindle to just six in the middle of the fourth quarter. As much as the Nets showed their upside, they also displayed why they needed this play-in just to make the playoffs. Still, Brooklyn’s higher gear was inescapable.

Early in the game, 7-foot Cavaliers forward Lauri Markkanen elevated for a layup. Durant – who had gotten beat on the play – recovered, skied to meet Markkanen at the apex and blocked the shot. The Nets raced ahead, and Andre Drummond dunked amid a swarm of Cavs buzzing by his legs.

Brooklyn reached heights Cleveland just can’t.