In the two years since he spider-dribbled off to Brooklyn, I’ve often cited Game 5 of the 2019 first-round playoff series with the Bucks as when Kyrie Irving quit on the Celtics.
Allow me to apologize for that slight inaccuracy. Oh, Irving was miserable in that game in an assortment of ways, but he had proceeded to check out before that. I’m still just not sure exactly when, other than that it was well before he took off the Celtics No. 11 jersey — the one he once said he hoped would someday be raised to the Garden rafters — for the final time.
But I do know this: He deserves to get booed in his return to the Garden on Friday night, his first visit with fans in attendance since he executed his conspiracy with Kevin Durant and joined the Nets in the summer of 2019.
There’s no need to swear, like Knicks fans have been doing at the Hawks’ Trae Young. There’s no need to bark cruel personal insults. And come on, can we make sure the last racist incident with a visiting athlete remains the last one forever? Don’t be that pathetic loser, and if that pathetic loser happens to be sitting next to you Friday night, rat him out and get him gone.
Be at your best. Be at your loudest. Prove that those things are not mutually exclusive. Boo Irving’s smug, unaccountable butt so loudly that the parquet floor looks like its tectonic plates are shifting. Boo him all the way to Secaucus and then across the bridge to Brooklyn. Boo him so he plays the second half wearing headphones. Boo him until he embraces being called World B. Flat.
Irving is dreading facing the music, that high-decibel cacophony of boos. He’s always had a reason — some legitimate, some dubious — to avoid playing in cities he’s left behind, first with Cleveland and now Boston. A sore knee. An impinged shoulder. Maybe a little load management. The “Uncle Drew” script needs another revision because Lisa Leslie is clearly the star. Whatever.
I feel for Irving if he experienced racism in Boston. I understand why he might be reluctant to speak in specifics. However, it also must be noted that the only time previously, before the postgame press conference after Game 2 on Tuesday, that he spoke publicly of racism in Boston, it was to say it hasn’t happened to him here after the DeMarcus Cousins incident in March 2019. One doesn’t have to be an accomplished cynic to wonder if he’s trying to use the city’s enduring shame to manipulate the crowd into leaving him alone altogether.
The silliest suggestion I’ve heard all week is that fans should just ignore him, because it would show … I don’t know, that he doesn’t matter or something? That fans are past his traitorous chicanery — remember the “two max slots!” conversation with Durant captured at the ’19 All-Star Game, clearly referencing the Nets? –— that undermined Danny Ainge’s best-laid plans and knocked this franchise off a championship track? Yeah, I’m gonna say Benedict Irving would be just fine with the silent treatment.
I wish we had the full, honest, detailed answer for how it came to this. Irving is addicted to being cryptic, and the Celtics brass speaks only in generalities about what changed his mind about Boston. Remember, and I know you do, that he said unprompted during a season-ticket holders event before the ’18 season that he planned to re-sign “if you’ll have me.” He reiterated that at the Forbes Under-30 Summit at Emerson Colonial Theatre that October, saying, “I love Boston” and how happy he was here.” He shot the Nike ad with his dad, Boston University legend Drederick Irving, playing one-on-one at the Garden. Kyrie voices it over by talking about how much Boston means to him.
Sometime over the next few months, something changed his mind. The talent-rich team didn’t mesh. Irving became dour. In February, when asked if his plans to stay had changed, he said, “Ask me July 1,” the first day of free agency. The tape of his conspiring with Durant was revealed. The Nike ad disappeared from the airwaves.
Irving was dismal and shamefully uninterested during that Game 5, the kind of performance that makes a Celtics fan of a certain age think, ’'Ah, so this is what it was like to watch Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.”
This week, I shelled out the $2.10 (tax included) on NBA.com in order to rewatch the game. I overpaid by at least two bucks. Irving wasn’t the only terrible Celtic performer in a 116-91 loss that ended a promising season gone haywire. Gordon Hayward was at his tentative worst. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown played like the league had implemented a penalty for passing. Marcus Smart hustled but missed open looks (some things never…).
At one point in the second quarter of the TNT broadcast, Marv Albert says to analyst Chris Webber, “They play iso-ball ... It’s a pass and a shot, very frequently.” (Again. Some things never …).
Irving had one assist, a deft bounce-pass through traffic to Tatum for a layup-plus-one in the third quarter. He shot terribly and casually, taking step-back after step-back, the most dazzling in-traffic ballhandler I’ve ever seen failing to drive to the hoop for a bucket until there were a little over two minutes remaining in the first half.
Irving had one abysmal stretch during an 11-0 Bucks run in the second quarter in which he failed to even raise his arms on a Khris Middleton post-up, was wide-left on an airballed 3, and made no effort to put a body on Ersan Elyasova on the easiest tip-in you’ll ever see. He finished 4 of 16 for the first half, 6 for 21 overall, was a team-worst minus-25 in 33 minutes.
That wasn’t even his most obnoxious performance in the series. In a Game 4 loss, he shot 7 of 22, and said afterward he should have taken 30 shots because “I’m that great of a shooter.” He also continuously insisted on guarding Giannis Antentokounmpo, who is nine inches taller and appeared to be nine feet taller. It’s like Irving was alternating between insubordination and indifference. He left the court before the final buzzer.
Irving’s last basketball act as a Celtic, the record shows, was a pass to Guerschon Yabusele for a bricked 3-point attempt in Game 5. He came out of the game with 8 minutes and 40 seconds left to play and the Celtics down, 91-68. He slapped Brad Stevens five in passing and plunked down on the bench, having checked out officially. He checked out mentally on the Celtics so much sooner. Only Irving knows exactly when.
The Celtics have proven beyond a doubt in the first two games of this series that they’re incapable of delivering his comeuppance on the court. The best that can be done is an onslaught of boos, delivered without controversy or ignorance, Friday night.
We don’t know enough about Kyrie Irving and why it ended here the way it did, but we do know this: He’s been avoiding hearing Celtics fans’ response since the moment of desertion.
Time for him to hear it now.