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MINNEAPOLIS — When Kyrie Irving is not playing basketball, he is often watching it. His preferred means of consumption is YouTube, and he views everything from the latest up-and-coming high school prospects to vintage NBA footage from well before his time.
On Wednesday morning Irving cued up his first ever playoff series, the 2015 first-round matchup between his Cavaliers and the Celtics. He was asked what he saw when watching 23-year-old Kyrie.
“Oh,” he said, smiling. “I was a bad [man].”
Even though that was just three years ago and Irving is still not yet 26, his extensive experience and otherworldly talent, combined with Gordon Hayward’s opening-night ankle injury, have thrust Irving into a role on this young team that he has never really held before. He is a veteran leader, and the adjustment has been at once challenging and invigorating for him.
“Losing Gordon was just a few more eyes on me that I had to be a lot more aware of, and then also with one of our leaders going down, it’s tough, because it’s an adjustment,” Irving said. “Coming into a new environment and you’re kind of expecting this is going to be the team, and then one big piece goes down, and you have to figure it out from there.”
Irving returned to practice Wednesday after missing Monday’s win over the Bulls with a sore knee. He said he plans to play against the Timberwolves on Thursday night. At the end of Wednesday’s session, he engaged in a friendly yet competitive shooting competition against three of Boston’s youngest players: Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart.
When it ended, the others left the court to gather their belongings. Irving, meanwhile, stayed and continued to hoist shots. He does small things like that partly to create a template for others. If the Celtics are doing a drill, Irving said, he knows he is the one that must stay fully engaged so that the others will be, too. If Kyrie can go all out, everyone can go all out.
“I lead by example in terms of being in the weight room almost every day, making sure I’m up and eating the right things and doing whatever’s needed in order to give myself a fighting chance to be great for the group,” Irving said.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens did not know Irving well before the team traded for him last August. But it quickly became clear that Irving was ready to be a guide, yet also ready to blend in.
“You have to lead with your personality, you have to lead authentically, and everybody has to do their role as well as they can, and that’s the first step,” Stevens said. “I think he’s done all that stuff well. He’s just tried to be one of the guys and has come in and shared what he knows and at the same time been very open and welcoming to everybody else’s sharing, which I think is a good locker room.”
Irving said Hayward’s injury instantly clouded the Celtics’ path, but he said it also allowed players — including him — to step into roles that were suddenly laid out a bit differently than initially expected.
“Gordon’s a huge piece, and when you lose him, I think all hell broke loose a little bit, like, ‘What are they going to look like?’ ” Irving said. “And a lot of guys took that personal, and they wanted to come out and prove something, not only to the rest of the league but to themselves, that they’re capable of doing it. And it only positions us even greater for the future.”
Even though Irving is just 25, he has far more playoff experience than anyone else on the team, having reached the NBA Finals in each of the last three seasons. When he watched the video clips from that 2015 series against the Celtics on Wednesday, he was reminded how jarring it was to prepare for a deep playoff run for the first time.
There is more to study, more film to watch, more precise and detailed game plans. Even though most of the current Celtics have some postseason experience, none have as much as Irving, and as that important part of the season draws near, he will continue to share.
“It takes a lot of preparation and demanding of yourself that’s at a whole other level,” he said.
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Celtics guard Marcus Smart said he plans to appeal the $15,000 fine he received Tuesday for being critical of the officiating following the Celtics’ loss to the Rockets on Saturday night.
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