The Celtics didn’t have to play against Kyrie Irving on Thursday night in Brooklyn. And there was a time when they didn’t think they’d ever have to play against him again. Or against Anthony Davis, either.
Sources tell Heavy.com that Irving was doing more than just plotting his own return as the 2018-19 season got going. Indeed, he’d stated his personal plan to a gathering of the club’s season ticket holders at the Garden that October:
“I’ve shared it with some of my teammates, as well as the organization and everyone else in Boston. If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next year.”
Then came a Nike ad with Kyrie and his father playing one-on-one on the Garden’s parquet floor. The tag line, confirmed by sources to have been added at Irving’s request, was striking.
As the camera shoots from the Garden rafters down to the floor on the Irvings, the banners containing the Celtics’ retired numbers can be seen in the foreground. “He’s the reason I wear No. 11,” Kyrie says. “I want to be the reason no one else will.”
He was planning a legacy, and the words were music to the ears of Celtic followers. Several months later, replaying either audio cut would give those same Greenhearts an earache as Irving and Kevin Durant went to Brooklyn in a package deal.
A Kyrie Irving-Anthony Davis ‘Falling Out’
But as that season was getting under way, Irving was all-in. And it wasn’t just about himself. He wanted Anthony Davis, who could have been had in an offseason trade with New Orleans.
“Oh, Kyrie was definitely on AD,” a Pelicans source told Heavy.com.
“It was looking like Anthony Davis was going to go to Boston with Kyrie there for a stretch. That’s what Kyrie wanted,” a league executive told Heavy. “Boston would have had to work it out with New Orleans, but once Anthony made his decision of where he wanted to go, the Pelicans wouldn’t have had much choice.
“But that’s the way it was going. I think people assumed at first that Durant would stay with Golden State, so Kyrie was courting AD to join him in Boston. It was looking good, but then Anthony and Kyrie had a little bit of a falling out for some reason. I think Kyrie fell more in love with Kevin Durant as opposed to Anthony Davis. Maybe he realized KD was possible.”
Said another source when told of that remark, “‘A falling out’ is an interesting way to put it, because obviously Kyrie had a falling out with Boston at some point there.”
That became evident when arena hallway video at 2019 All-Star weekend in Charlotte showed Irving pitching Durant hard: “Two max slots. It’s time.”
“Kyrie already had a good team in Boston, but he wanted to play with another superstar,” said the latter source. “He was just trying to figure out a way to get it done. But I can tell you for sure he started off that year trying to make that happen in Boston. Sure (Danny) Ainge and those guys were looking at what they might be able to do, but Kyrie was the one out there recruiting for Boston.”
Cracks Appear for Celtics
The Celtics had gone to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals without the injured Irving and Gordon Hayward, squandering a lead against Cleveland in a hail of rushed and errant shots. But with those two rejoining Al Horford and youngsters Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, the Celts were looking to put something new in the rafters, if not Irving’s number just yet.
But the cracks began to appear early in the new Season of Great Expectation. The Celtics were just a .500 team after 20 games, and although things would improve significantly thereafter, there was an uneasiness to the process.
Irving would tell reporters that some people on the team lacked experience and didn’t fully understand what it took to win at a high level. The inexperienced people would note privately that they got to the conference finals without two All-Stars, so, like, they must have understood a few things.
At a certain point, Irving’s feelings about his Celtic future changed. After reports suggested he might not stay with Boston, he sat courtside at Madison Square Garden before a February 1 morning shootaround and said his focus was solely on the current season. Asked if that meant a shift in his mindset regarding the future, Irving said, “Ask me July 1st.” He knew there were rumors, and he chose to let them breathe.
As I walked away from the media crowd, one of the Celtic veterans stopped me.
“What did he say?”
“He said my life is going to be miserable for the next five months,” I replied, referring to the fact a major issue thought to be settled now needed to be monitored constantly. And we would have to sift through every ensuing Irving interview looking for clues.
The veteran player rolled his eyes.
“Kyrie fell out of love with Boston for a couple of reasons — mostly some of the young guys that didn’t respect him as he thought they should have,” a source told Heavy.com recently. “I think it had a little bit to do with Brad (Stevens) and the way he was coaching the young players, as opposed to building everything around him. I don’t think he had any problem with Brad Stevens as a person or as a smart coach; I think he just wanted it to be more about him. It’s like, ‘He doesn’t know how to coach a superstar.'”
Said another source close to the situation, “A lot of the young guys looked up to Kyrie, but there was clearly an issue there. Then you saw him getting in cahoots with KD. He had made his mind up that it was him or them. It wasn’t going to work.”
Said yet another source, “He did behave different around the team the second half of that second year.”
Kyrie Irving’s Public Comments vs. Private Comments
There was a discrepancy, too, from what Irving was saying privately and in his public comments.
“I think he was pretty open with Danny,” said a team source. “But then we’d hear him in interviews and it was just like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ He just turned into this different human being. Like he couldn’t even keep track of what he was saying. He was a different person in front of the media. It was like there was some creation in his own mind that he had to be something in front of the cameras. It was really strange.”
The Celtics had little choice but to let it play out. After a 10-point loss to the Bulls, who would finish with the fourth-worst record in the league, Irving pointed to the playoffs and said he wasn’t concerned: “Nah, we’ll be fine.”
Asked why, he replied, “Because I’m here.”
There was reason to cast Kyrie as a prophet when the fourth-seeded Celtics swept Indiana in the first round, then battered the Bucks in Milwaukee by 22 in Game 1. But as soon as the first hint of adversity appeared in the next meeting, the Celts checked out. They did not win another game on the way to summer.
They would make it to the conference finals again without Irving, falling to Miami in the 2020 bubble.
“It’s amazing when you look at what they’d built there,” an opposing coach told us this week. “You had veteran stars and young stars. And Kyrie is just so damn talented.
“We were talking about it as a staff and looking at how it all got messed up. Then someone said, ‘Kyrie,’ and we all just shrugged. You talk to his former coaches, and, damn … He’s such a good player, but there’s so much more that comes with it.”
Said a league exec, “Going on pure talent, there’s no way he shouldn’t have been on that 75th anniversary team.”
And if the vaccination requirement is relaxed in New York and Irving helps lead Brooklyn to a championship, he could well be the reason no Net ever wears 11 again.