BOSTON – Kyrie Irving officially played 43 minutes, 40 seconds – including all 24 minutes of the second half – for the Celtics in Monday night’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks. In reality, he came up about 10 seconds short of that.
As Al Horford’s 3-pointer drained through the net for the last points in the 113-101 loss, and four of the five Celtics in the game headed up the floor for the final possession of the night, Irving turned and headed straight down the tunnel to the locker room. The final 10 seconds or so of the game were spent with four active Celtics players on the floor, and their superstar darting down the hallway, past the mural of Boston Celtics legends, all by himself.
“The game was over,” Irving reasoned when asked about the early exit following Boston’s third straight loss in the series that brought the team to the brink of elimination.
For all intents and purposes that is true, yet the symbolism was striking for the free agent-to-be. A few hundred feet from where he and Gordon Hayward exchanged loving glances following Irving’s trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers 20 months ago, and through the same tunnel he walked with his father in a TV commercial that aired this past Thanksgiving night where he proclaimed he wanted to be the reason no one besides himself wore the No. 11 on a Celtics uniform ever again, it was an image you could not help but feel could be the last of Irving in the arena wearing a shirt with “Celtics” on the front of it.
Irving was certainly not all the reason why the Celtics lost on Monday. Nor is he the sole – or even primary – reason why the team needs to win Wednesday in Milwaukee to extend the season to Friday night in Boston. But Irving is the one who put himself on the pedestal as the team leader and focal point from the night he pledged to re-sign with Boston “if you’ll have me” to season-ticket holders back in October.
As those vows appeared to fade to an advanced shade of impending broken promise Monday night, Irving once again took to that pedestal in his explanation of how things have gone so sour, so fast in this series.
“The expectations on me are going to be sky high,” he said of his 19-for-62 shooting over the last three games, including 7-for-22 Monday night. “And I try to utilize their aggression against them, and still try to put my teammates in great positions, while still being aggressive.
“I’m still trying to do it all.”
The quote summed up the theme of Irving’s sentiment after the game. He didn’t come across as angry, bitter or frustrated. He came across as vaguely detached at best, and with ambivalent resignation at worst.
Having complained for months about his own inability to get through to the “young guys” in a way that gave him a new appreciation of what LeBron James had to deal with when it came to his own immaturity in Cleveland, he referenced the long-taboo subject yet again Monday night in perhaps the most damning way he has yet.
He referenced it not as a work-in-progress, but as a fatal flaw.
“I think that the difference in level is just the experience,” when asked about comparing the Cavaliers team that rallied from down 3-1 to beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals to the current Celtics. “That’s been the biggest thing for us in these playoffs, as well as in the season, and in getting tested to this moment, is just the basketball knowledge of it.”
Irving claimed his confidence remains “unwavering” despite the 3-1 deficit. He answered questions for five minutes and was mostly courteous and articulate. But with each praise of Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s great play-calling and ability to identify particular sets his own coach and the Celtics have found indefensible, with each longing remembrance of days of yore in Cleveland that he begged out of before being traded to the Celtics two years ago, and with the claim that he should have taken 30 shots instead of 22 despite his own struggles a third straight game, Irving seemed to take one more step down that runway with his teammates still on the floor, and one more step away from the fairy tale that one day included he and his father raising the No. 11 to the Garden rafters.
The Celtics still have a chance to win this series down 3-1 the way only 11 NBA teams – including one with Irving – have done in history. Irving still has every chance to decide to re-sign with Boston and write his own history with the most storied franchise in the game.
But the gaps in that storybook and reality have grown throughout this season of discontent, and appeared to grow even greater in those final 10 seconds of regulation Monday night, as Irving set off on a path all his own with the rest of his team left in his wake.