BOSTON – It was a case of whether you believed your eyes or your ears when it came to Kyrie Irving and the Celtics Sunday night.
Or, maybe more appropriately, your mind or your heart.
The eye test told you this might have been the last straw. And, for all intents and purposes, the end of the Grand Kyrie Irving Experiment in Boston. After blowing an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s loss in Charlotte, the Celtics were blown out on their home floor Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs with Irving’s reactions on the court seeming to punctuate every death-knell conclusion about a night – and season – to ultimately forget.
There was Irving sitting away from the team during timeouts. There was Irving walking to the locker room with 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter. There was Irving being one day removed from seemingly questioning the coach’s defensive tactics.
So the tension mounted in the minutes, which went on for more than an hour, following Irving’s premature exit from the parquet. Celtics coach Brad Stevens took 20 minutes to make his way to a press conference he usually wraps up in less than 15 following the final buzzer. The locker room was closed to the media for 35 minutes after the game when it typically opens up within 20. It was more than an hour before a seemingly perturbed Irving navigated his way through a mass of cameras and microphones anticipating perhaps the final frustrated fury of the face of the franchise. Or, more likely, a renewed vow of silence toward the media that could have spoken volumes about his feelings about both this season and his future in Boston.
Only Irving sang a different song when it came time to start speaking. Perhaps reeled in during the latest and greatest team discussion following the fourth straight loss, or perhaps disarmed with a Rob Gronkowski retirement question to start his media session – Irving’s a big fan, by the way – he put the onus on Boston’s last, best chance to turn this season around squarely upon his own shoulders.
“We have a lot of great guys in this locker room who are committed to winning,” Irving said to the raised eyebrows of many. “We have winners in this locker room as well. I’m never worried about going back and trying to respond with these guys. They are a resilient group. We’ve proven that for the last year-and-a-half that we’ve been together. It doesn’t look pretty all the time. But we’ve always tried to find a way to figure it out and get the best out of each other.”
“It starts with me and it trickles down to the rest of the starters on this team. You’ve just got to be committed. And it starts with me.”
#Celtics Kyrie Irving put a lot on himself to be the guiding force for making this team figure this out this season. Did not do it in a condescending fashion as he's done other times this year, but essentially said he still believes in these C's. @CelticsCLNS @CLNSMedia
— Scott Souza (@Scott_Souza) March 25, 2019
It was a far different tone than Irving has struck throughout the season when he has talked about “the young guys” and how they have to learn what it takes to contend for a shot at a championship. For perhaps the first time all year, Irving acknowledged that they did compete for a shot at a championship without him just fine last year, and that it’s part of his responsibility for bridging the gap between taking that shot and having a legitimate chance to finish the job.
And he did it quite colorfully, at that.
“Everybody always wants to say they need to do this or they need to do that,” he said. “Nobody fucking knows. Nobody has been in my position. Nobody here. Honestly, nobody here can understand that. They just speak on it. And give their opinion about what would be best for it.
“But, for me, my focus is figuring out the guys in this locker room and trying to get the best out of them. And just get the best out of me. It’s been hard. But it’s a challenge worth fighting for. Because the end result is standing on that stage.”
Stevens made it clear twice on Sunday he is standing by his superstar. First, he did it pregame when he responded to Irving’s not-so-thinly-veiled critique of the coach’s game plan in Charlotte. Then, he did it after the game when he answered a question about Irving’s energy, which was more an allusion to Irving’s body language, throughout the night.
“He’s got a lot of responsibility on his shoulders,” the coach said. “He feels that. And we believe in him. There’s days like that. There’s nights like that. You play a lot of minutes like he did (Saturday) night. If we would have been better in the fourth quarter, he wouldn’t have had to play a lot of minutes (in Charlotte). But we didn’t do every little thing we needed to do. And, as a result, that all adds up too.”
To this point, it has added up to a 43-31 record that has the Celtics hurtling toward needing to win three series as a road team to make the NBA Finals. It has added up to a year where Boston arrives in Cleveland for Game 75 Tuesday night with what Stevens called rightfully earned doubt as to whether they will ever truly figure this thing out.
It has added up to a superstar on the verge of unrestricted free agency who has witnessed the grand design he foresaw when he arrived in Boston 18 months ago turn into tangled web that he could well be looking to desperately free himself from at his golden July 1 opportunity.
If those are his true intentions, however, Irving broken some ankles of expectations when he bit his tongue and swallowed his pride Sunday night.
“We’re trying to build great championship habits,” Irving said. “That takes time and it takes a commitment. But, like I said, it starts with me. I’ll do my best to keep communicating the best I can and get the most out of these guys.
“Because they deserve it from me.”
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