Irving shook off Raptors guard Fred VanVleet as the final seconds ticked off the clock, stepped behind the 3-point line and nailed the clutch shot to give the Nets their fifth straight win and their ninth in the past 10 games.
The play was originally drawn up for Nets star forward Kevin Durant, but Durant told Nets coach Jacque Vaughn to switch it to Irving as the team was coming out of its final timeout.
“He was already cooking, so I didn’t want to get in his way,” Durant said after the game. “We kept finding him late in the game. He made some big shots, and I was just like, ‘Jacque, I think Ky should take this one.'”
Durant said he felt confident that Irving could get a good shot “especially” because he was being guarded by VanVleet.
“I’m not saying he’s a bad defender, but they’re the same size,” Durant said. “He didn’t have a 6-9 [Scottie] Barnes or a 6-5 guy on him that had size, so I felt he could get whatever he want there, and I also felt like they wasn’t going to run and double him either at the top of the key because he obviously could just beat that. So they let him play one-on-one and it was a special, special shot.”
Irving’s shot silenced the Toronto crowd and set off a joyous celebration on the floor for a Brooklyn group that appears to have found its stride after a rocky first month and a half of the season. Irving threw up a pair of finger guns and holstered them after nailing the winner, as his teammates excitedly jumped around him in a circle.
For all the big shots Irving has hit in his career, including the memorable 3-pointer that helped seal Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Irving noted that this was the first time he actually knocked down a shot as the clock expired.
“It just comes with the trust that we’re building here,” Irving said. “Jacque had a play call that we were about to go execute, and me and K had some dialogue and we decided to run the play for me. A good matchup versus Fred. We just got the better of him that one time. Who would have thought I would have come into Toronto and hit my first game-winning buzzer-beater of my career? So pray that there’s more in the future, but I’m glad that we got this win.”
Irving, who finished with a team-high 32 points, made several crucial plays down the stretch, including a terrific pass to Yuta Watanabe for a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left in regulation that gave the Nets a momentary 116-114 lead.
Irving said his composure late in close games is a product of a desire to be the best player he can be.
“I’m not really comfortable,” Irving said. “I just want to be great in those situations. And I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. So you can say anything you want about me not hitting shots in the past, but the one time when you step up and make it, those are the ones you want to remember. … Momentary praise is cool, but still trying to get ourselves together for what we’re going to see in the future.”
Irving’s teammates and coaches said they can see — and feed off — Irving’s ability to rise to the occasion late in games.
“He definitely has an inner peace and poise that you have to have at that situation, to not panic,” Vaughn said. “And he has an innate ability to get to his spot. He wanted to rise up, he created space, with balance, and to be a guy of his size, to be able to do that, against bigger guys, smaller guys, pretty innate.”
Durant noted that the Nets’ recent hot play has helped the group develop the kind of identity it has been seeking since the season began. He described that identity as being “versatile on the defensive side” and having a defensive presence “we’re going to hang our hat on.”
Irving offered up another reminder Friday night of just how gifted he is on the offensive end and how much his ability with the ball can lift up those around him.
Said Watanabe: “I felt like as soon as he took the shot, I knew that was going in.”