In the final seconds of the Celtics’ loss to the Magic on Saturday, Kyrie Irving openly disagreed with coach Brad Stevens’s play call, then raised his hands in frustration when the final inbounds pass did not go to him. He later sat stoically at his locker after most of his teammates had departed following the 105-103 loss, the middle segment of what is now a three-game losing streak.
I asked Irving why this season has been so mercurial.
“Experience,” he said.
He paused, and it seemed as if he would leave it at that. But he did not, instead launching into an answer that stretched for more than two minutes. Here is part of it:
“The best thing I can say is experience. We’re lacking it, and because of that we have a lot of learning to do. So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard, you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes.
“You’ve got to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there. You’ve got to appreciate being out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against. It matters the type of preparation you have, what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced just every single day. It’s not easy to be great.”
It was hardly the first time Irving pointed to Boston’s youth as a reason for its struggles, although it is a bit of an odd stance, considering the roster is loaded with veterans. Also, the Celtics’ most inexperienced rotation player, second-year forward Jayson Tatum, has had a fine season. Third-year forward Jaylen Brown has struggled at times but has found a rhythm recently.
It’s also hard to tell if Irving actually has issues with the younger players, or if they just offer the most convenient or even cliché explanation for missteps.
Irving missed Monday’s game against the Nets due to a quadriceps contusion. But earlier in the day he walked back his previous comments a bit, saying he just wanted to see the young players play well, adding later:
“Sometimes I may come off and say things, never to question my teammates in public like that ever again, but I just want to win so bad,” he said.
Later that night, the Celtics faced a 27-point fourth-quarter deficit before falling to Brooklyn, 109-102.
In his postgame interview, Brown repeatedly made statements that sounded increasingly like references to his own frustrations with Irving’s recent comments.
“We’ve got to be more accountable as a group,” Brown said. “It’s not one guy’s fault. It’s not young guys’, old guys’ fault. It’s everybody. We all have to be accountable to turn this thing around . . . We all have to have each other’s backs.”
Taken on its own, that statement certainly wouldn’t raise many eyebrows. It comes across as basic postgame locker room talk. But Brown returned to and expanded upon this theme several times, even when it was unrelated to the question.
When he was asked about why the offense had been “uptight” against the Nets, as Brown had called it, he said:
“We’ve just got to have each other’s backs at the end of the day. We can’t make comments; we can’t point fingers. We just have to continue to empower each other and have each other’s backs. If we don’t, if we start pointing fingers, everybody’s going to go into their own little shells . . . It starts from the top to the bottom. Not from the bottom to the top, but the top to the bottom.”
Now, perhaps Brown was once again just speaking broadly here, but there was no doubt that a trend was developing. The fact that he made a point of emphasizing that it starts at the top — and Irving is most certainly at the top — and not the bottom, seemed like a clear message. And the only obvious public finger-pointing recently had come from Irving, a fact Irving himself even addressed.
Brown was then asked what had gone so well during Boston’s fourth-quarter comeback. He said he was simply playing hard, staying positive, and being there for his teammates. He said that unit was playing hard together.
“So continue to do that day in and day out, regardless of what’s being said in the media,” Brown said.
Brown could have been referring to the media’s criticism of the Celtics, and not Irving going to the media to criticize the Celtics. But given his earlier statements, it was unclear. And he still wasn’t done.
He was asked what went wrong with Boston’s defense in the third quarter, when it surrendered 44 points. He said Brooklyn had become too comfortable, and that Boston did not establish enough of a defensive presence. Then he made another reference to “the top.”
“We have to get that identity back that we have,” he said. “It’s there; we’ve just got to bring it out of each other. How many of us are making each other better? I think that’s what it comes down to, and it starts from the top.”
Maybe Brown was truly just speaking in generalities. It’s also possible that his buzzwords about empowerment and starting at the top and having each other’s backs were simply repackaged from a message the team had received as a whole, from someone like Stevens. But at this point, it cannot be counted out that there is tension brewing. Of course, the best way to ease any apparent in-house discomfort is by winning, and the Celtics understand that as well as anyone.
For what it’s worth, Tatum was asked specifically for his thoughts about Irving’s criticism, and he was unbothered by it.
“It’s not really directed towards anybody or calling guys out,” Tatum said. “He’s telling his truth. He knows what it takes to win a championship, and most of us don’t. And sometimes you’ve got to be brutally honest in this profession to get the best out of one another. If it comes from a good place, it’s not trying to bring anybody down.”