NEW YORK — It’s hard to know exactly what Kyrie Irving’s motivation was for backtracking a bit on his October proclamation that he planned to re-sign with the Celtics this summer. But there are a few possibilities to consider.
First of all, I truly think that right now Irving is still planning to remain in Boston. But I also think that he saw the Knicks free up cap space for two max-salary free agents, he knows New York could secure the No. 1 overall pick of the draft, and if all other things were equal, he would rather play in New York than in Boston. All other things are not equal, of course. The Knicks are a floundering franchise while the Celtics are well positioned to challenge for NBA titles for years to come. But the fact that the Knicks shifted the deck chairs so swiftly Thursday might at least has made Irving step back a bit to take a closer look.
It also was clear listening to him that he did not appreciate being tossed into these Anthony Davis-related story lines that were ignited by Davis’s agent, Rich Paul. It is not that Irving does not want to play with Davis. The two are friends, Davis is one of the five best players in the world, and Irving wants to win. Of course he wants to play with Davis.
But Davis has become the king of this story line, and Irving is the secondary piece. Irving was a secondary piece once before, and we saw how he ended up feeling about that in Cleveland. I think Irving’s statements Friday may have been a way to shift the focus back to him, to show that he is still a power broker who is in control of his own narrative. But with Irving, you never really know.
■ The timing of all of this appeared to be perfect for Knicks fans, of course, as Irving and the Celtics played in Madison Square Garden just one day after New York’s space-clearing trade. It was a great opportunity for Knicks fans to shower Irving with affection, but their effort was uninspiring. They cheered a bit louder for him in introductions and started some scattered “We want Kyrie” chants. But it was a mostly staid atmosphere.
■ Irving spoke to the media twice Friday, first at the morning shootaround and then after the game. At the morning session, Irving created a stir when he appeared to open the door to multiple suitors this summer. The most jarring statement came when he was asked directly whether his thoughts about re-signing with the Celtics had shifted.
“Ask me July 1,” he said.
Fast-forward to the postgame scene, when Irving was asked about the chants of Knicks fans. He seemed irritated. “It’s nothing but a distraction at this point,” he said. “Like I said, I’m appreciative of the fan support I get in any arena, but of course coming back home, obviously what’s going on in terms of that noise and commentary, it’s just a bunch of nonsense right now.”
That’s a fair point, but it’s also true that Irving essentially created the distraction earlier in the day. Instead of squashing it then, he stoked the coals. With Irving, sometimes it feels like every word and statement is carefully calculated and crafted, and other times it feels like he does not realize the impact his words will have.
■ While Knicks fans made their halfhearted pleas for Irving, they did not have a monopoly on the scene. There were plenty of Celtics fans at Madison Square Garden, as always. The media at MSG sit in the third level, so one of the main ways to get down to the bowels of the arena after games is to take escalators with the fans. That’s what I did, and that’s when I spotted a boy, who appeared to be about 10 years old, wearing an Irving No. 11 Celtics jersey and singing his own tune. “They’re not getting Kyrie!” he said over and over, drawing a mix of chuckles and dismissive head shakes.
■ Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia made a stop in the Celtics’ locker room after the game. He shook hands with Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart, and one of his sons took pictures with both of them.
■ Yes, the Celtics have won eight of nine games, and they are finally healthy, but it’s not quite safe to declare them as major Eastern Conference threats just yet. Aside from a win over the Raptors, who were missing three rotation players, the other seven wins have come against poor or shorthanded teams, and the only two road wins came against the lowly Knicks and Hawks. But after Tuesday’s road game against Cleveland, the schedule will get very difficult, very quickly, with February road games against the 76ers, Bucks, and Raptors. That will offer a real indicator of progress.
■ So, here’s what’s happening on Thursday: The NBA trade deadline is at 3 p.m., the All-Star draft, in which LeBron James could have an opportunity to send a message by selecting Davis — or even Irving — is at 7 p.m., and at 8 p.m. James and the Lakers will face Irving and the Celtics in a nationally televised game at TD Garden. OK, then.
■ The red-hot Thunder will face the Celtics in the Super Bowl matinee on Sunday. Oklahoma City has won seven games in a row, and its MVP candidate this season is not Russell Westbrook. Paul George is averaging 27.6 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and a league-leading 2.3 steals per game while also making 41 percent of his 3-pointers.