Often creative genius and brilliance are accompanied by eccentricity. That’s why it’s better to think of Celtics star Kyrie Irving not as a basketball player, but as a creative type whose canvas happens to be a basketball court. Irving is your typical temperamental artiste. The talent is undeniable. The temperament is unpredictable.
It’s all good times and good vibes for Irving and the Celtics now on the West Coast after the most famous flight in Boston sports since David Price dressed down Dennis Eckersley on the Red Sox team plane two years ago and three wins in three games for the Green. While many are waiting for the other Nike to drop, I suggest we adjust our perspective on Irving. We have one of the most fascinating figures in sports in our midst. Embrace it. With Irving, who shares his feelings and frustrations in real time, it’s going to be complicated, interesting, and entertaining. Buckle up and enjoy the ride, Boston, because if you want to keep Irving, there’s no other way.
You just have to let Kyrie be Kyrie. He is brilliant and baffling, magnetic and maddening, wise beyond his years and emotionally impetuous, supremely self-assured, and a little insecure. The Celtics have gotten the entire Irving Experience, including career-best efficiency on the court and work-in-progress leadership off it. Irving mood ring not included.
In case you haven’t noticed, Irving has no interest fitting into your little basketball player box. Sorry. We always demand that athletes be honest and real with us, but when they do it we judge them for it. While a team’s leader must display a greater degree of equanimity, I’ll take Irving’s honesty over some of the cookie-cutter palaver of the Patriots any day.
Irving is a conundrum and a contradiction. He seeks the limelight but wants to be left alone by the media. He craves approval but doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He loves playing basketball but is quick to tell you the game doesn’t define him, and he’ll embrace the end of his career. He wants to be the leader of a team, but he’s an inveterate individualist. He wants his own team but chafes at the scrutiny from being the face of a franchise.
He refuses to be defined and lives to defy convention. If you try to decipher his every mood, mind-set, and motive and react to them accordingly, you’ll twist yourself into a pretzel. That’s what the Celtics have to learn. They have to both embrace Irving for all that he is and ignore him sometimes for the same reasons.
The Celtics need this relationship with Irving to work. Let’s end the silliness right now about the Celtics being better off without Irving. There is no best version of the Celtics that doesn’t include Irving, this year or in the future.
Sixty-seven games into a tempestuous season, the Celtics have seemingly found the connectedness that coach Brad Stevens preaches and an equilibrium with Irving. The question is whether that’s enough time to salvage the lofty playoff expectations inspired by this roster and secure a long-term future with Irving.
It feels as if Irving’s decision to remain in Boston is contingent upon the final conclusion of this dramatic miniseries of a season. If the Celtics coalesce and go all the way to the NBA Finals, then Irving will be left with the final impression that the struggle was all worth it.
If the Celtics get knocked out in the second round, the last feelings he harbors could be resentment and disappointment that his public pleas to follow his path to championship contention went unheeded.
The final feeling this season leaves Irving with will go a long way in determining whether he fulfills his preseason pledge to re-sign with the Celtics or flees in free agency.
Even if some of Irving’s moody act offends Stevens’s sensibilities, Stevens has to make him feel like it’s a partnership.
Perhaps the plight of his one-time mentor, LeBron James, wasting his talent on a Los Angles Lakers team that’s in competitive purgatory and headed for a playoff DNQ gave Irving even greater appreciation for his situation.
While Irving was brilliant against the Lakers on Saturday night — with 30 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and two jaw-dropping behind-the-back buckets — the most revealing aspect of his performance had nothing to do with offense.
Irving took a charge from Rajon Rondo and then tried to take another from LeBron in the fourth quarter. He was whistled for a block on ’Bron, despite taking an elbow to the face. He also took a charge and celebrated it excitedly in the Celtics’ blowout win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.
Irving absorbing charges is like Manny Machado running the basepaths like Pete Rose. Just as Irving has pushed Stevens outside of his comfort zone, Stevens has nudged Irving outside of his.
Terse and standoffish last Sunday after Boston lost its fifth game in sixth tries post-All-Star break, Irving has been upbeat and engaged since the Celtics arrived in California. ESPN’s Lisa Salters asked him after the Lakers game what changed.
“I did some coaching on the plane, myself,” Irving told ESPN with a chuckle. “I helped coach Stevens with some coaching, but, um, more or less just getting our spirit right, our energy. I think the rigors of the season can get to you a little bit. I myself was very frustrated. [There were] high expectations for myself and for my teammates, and when we’re not being up to that standard I’m going to wear it on my shoulders. I’m a very passionate guy.
“The ultimate goal is to win a championship. We got to do this every single night, and I got to show one guy from 1 to 15 that coming out here is a privilege . . . We have to earn it. We have to earn the right to come out here and compete.”
Irving has played great all year — he’s on pace to set career highs in shooting percentage, 3-point shooting percentage, rebounds, and assists — and now he’s in a good mood regarding the Green.
“Ky’s our leader, and when he’s in a great mood and he’s feeling good, we’re hard to beat, and it’s contagious,” Irving’s understudy at point guard, Terry Rozier, told NBC Sports Boston recently.
“It rubs off on everybody else. Sometimes when he’s not like that, it can get everybody uptight. So the way he’s been acting has been great, and it has been good for us.”
Irving’s mood might change again, but he won’t.
The Celtics and Boston basketball fans have to accept Irving for who he is if they want to keep him here.