Kyrie Irving only wants to talk about basketball.
But he’s certainly giving people plenty of reasons to do otherwise.
During Game 1 of the first-round playoff series Sunday afternoon between the Celtics and Nets, Irving was caught on camera giving the middle finger to the TD Garden crowd at least twice.
The first came in the final minutes of the third quarter, after Irving knocked down a well-contested 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring to bring the Nets within 6. On his way to the other end of the court, Irving turned and threw up his middle finger.
Then, during a stoppage of play midway through the fourth quarter, Irving was waiting to inbound the ball when he decided to put both hands behind his head and flip off the crowd again. After some of the nearby fans responded, Irving mockingly gestured as if he were crying.
Asked about the exchange following the game, a 115-114 Celtics’ win, Irving said he’s returning the same energy he receives from the fans.
“It’s not every fan,” he said. “I don’t want to attack every Boston fan, but when people start yelling, ‘[expletive]’ and ‘[expletive]’ and ‘[expletive] you’ and all this stuff, it’s only so much you can take as a competitor. We’re the ones expected to be docile and humble and take a humble approach. Nah, [expletive] that. It’s the playoffs. This is what it is.”
From start to finish, the home crowd was eager to boo and heckle Irving at every opportunity — a common response ever since Irving did not re-sign with the Celtics in 2019, despite initially announcing he planned to return.
When Irving was introduced as part of Brooklyn’s starting lineup, the fans booed loudly. Nearly every time he touched the ball, they booed. When he was at the free throw line in the third quarter, they started a “Kyrie sucks!” chant.
Whenever Irving made a mistake, the fans were sure to celebrate. When he turned it over for the first time, they cheered. When he committed his first foul seconds later, they cheered again. When Irving lazily inbounded a pass that was stolen by Marcus Smart right in front of the basket, the crowd immediately filled the noise-meter on the jumbotron when Smart scored on an uncontested dunk.
Irving called the antagonistic reception “nothing new,” adding that he expected it.
Still, the crowd didn’t seem to affect Irving’s performance. He tallied a game-high 39 points on 12-of-20 shooting with 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals. He was perfect from the line on nine attempts, despite the fans’ best efforts to rattle him.
When the Nets trailed by 11 to open the fourth quarter, Irving knocked down three consecutive buckets over an 80-second span to bring them within 1. He scored 18 of Brooklyn’s 29 points in the final quarter, making seven of his nine shots.
After the game, a reporter asked Irving whether the hostility from the fans can help bring out the best in him. Irving, however, didn’t want to discuss the matter.
“Let’s not focus on this,” he replied. “Ask me questions about the game.”
The reporter tried again: “From a basketball standpoint, do you feel the hostility you get —”
Irving cut off the question.
“It’s not hostility,” he said. “It’s basketball.”
When the reporter pointed out that using his middle finger to flip fans off could be interpreted as hostility, Irving pushed back.
“From what?” he said. “Are you guessing that that’s hostility?”
Irving then directed the reporter to direct those types of questions to the fans.
“I’m not trying to focus on that,” he said. “Go on the street and ask them.”
Both Nets coach Steve Nash and teammate Kevin Durant said they don’t feel the hostile atmosphere impacts Irving. Nash noted before tip-off that he doesn’t view the crowd as a factor at this point in Irving’s career.
“This is a guy that’s made the game-winning shot in the final, played in the Olympics, played in the All-Star game, All-Star Game MVP,” Nash said. “I don’t know that there are any atmospheres that are really going to rattle him.”
Added Durant after the game: “I don’t think he worries about it. I think he just plays his game and does what’s required out there. Tonight, his shot-making and just controlling the game for us was incredible. That’s what we’re going to need going forward.”
Even if he doesn’t consider it “hostile,” Irving eventually said he embraced the atmosphere of Sunday’s game. And it sure brought out a hell of a performance in Brooklyn’s losing effort.
“It’s the dark side,” he said. “You relish it as a competitor.”
Leading up to the Celtics-Nets series, Irving said he was hopeful Boston fans could “move forward” from his tenure with the Celtics. After Game 1, does he think that’s still possible?
“Don’t care at this point,” he said. “Let’s get to the series and talk about our possessions and how we’re going to get better. Not going to focus on the past with Boston. I’m on the Brooklyn Nets, happy to be with my teammates and competing out there.”
Nicole Yang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Follow her on Twitter @nicolecyang.