Befittingly for this Celtics season, Kyrie Irving walked off the floor with 8.1 seconds left without anyone following him. Irving absconded solo to the locker room to grapple with the ramifications of a 3-1 deficit in the Celtics’ second-round playoff series with the Milwaukee Bucks, with a season and a team slipping through his grasp. Irving never looked back. He might never be back on the TD Garden parquet in a Celtics uniform.
“The game was over,” said Irving, asked to explain his premature departure from the Celtics’ dispiriting 113-101 loss.
We might be saying the same for the tumultuous Kyrie Irving Era of Boston basketball. If the Celtics don’t win in Milwaukee on Wednesday that’s all folks. We’re long past buying that Irving’s preseason pledge to remain a Celtic is ironclad. This postseason, the Celtics are playing not just to prevent great expectations from going unfulfilled but to make a final plea to Irving to stay. They’re John Cusack in “Say Anything” with a boombox above their heads.
Thanks to another rim-rattling clunker from Irving, the Celtics are one loss away from a second-round exit. Does anyone really believe Irving is going to make a beeline back to Boston for a team that never heeded his fortune-cookie advice, never bonded, and flopped out of the playoffs? No way.
If Monday was the end of the Irving Era in Boston it was a hoops Hindenburg, a crash and burn catastrophe of epic proportions that saw Irving depart early and Playoff Kyrie never arrive — for the third straight game. Irving wanted to be the focus, the focal point, the franchise front man. This is what he wanted, to have his own team, to be his own man, to be free from LeBron James’s shadow. It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Irving doesn’t seem up to it.
After a 7-for-22, 23-point performance, a deceiving double-double (10 assists), Irving is now an aggregate 19 of 62 (30.6 percent) in the last three games, a stat he found irritating.
“Who cares?” he said. “I’m a basketball player. I prepare the right way. Like I said, it’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down. You know you’re being picked up full-court. They’re doing things to test you. The expectations on me are going to be sky-high. I try to utilize their aggression against them and still put my teammates in great position while still being aggressive. I’m trying to do it all.”
While Irving might be missing shots, he’s not missing his bravado, which might be the Celtics’ best shot of salvaging their season.
“For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m really that great of a shooter,” he said. “I think the consistency of going at it and staying aggressive is always going to put us in a great position. Obviously, being more cautious of the turnovers when they’re going on runs and managing the game better that way I feel like I can do better. But in terms of shooting, it’s a series, they’re doing a great job of loading, making sure they’re putting a high emphasis on everywhere I go on the court.”
All of that is true. The Bucks have made life difficult for Irving, but that’s what happens to the frontman of a championship contender. Teams always try to take out LeBron, James Harden, and Steph Curry. They tried to take out Larry Bird and Paul Pierce when they were the primary scorers on Celtics title contenders. That’s life as the lead singer. You can’t lament it or blame it. It comes with the territory of being handed the keys to a franchise.
Whatever happens with the Celtics, Irving will bear the brunt of the blame or the praise. That’s what he signed up for. The Celtics need the guy that tormented them with his brilliance when he was in Cleveland with Big Brother ’Bron. The guy that was brought here to be the transcendent talent the Celtics needed to become a true championship contender, an upgrade over Isaiah Thomas.
Kyrie hasn’t been any of that in this series or in the playoffs, save for a brilliant Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers.
In a 49-win season filled packed with drama and Dramamine for all the ups and downs, Irving was resolute the Celtics would get it right when they needed to for one simple reason — him. He was asked after a 126-116 loss to the lowly Chicago Bulls on Feb. 23 if he thought the Celtics underwhelming play would spill into the playoffs. He offered nothing but nyet. “Because I’m here.”
But Playoff Kyrie has been replaced by Pressing Kyrie. He played the whole second half and was 2 of 7 after a 5-of-15 first half.
With 9:16 left in the third quarter, Irving shot a three that got wedged between the rim and the backboard, symbolic of his play in this series following Game 1. He’s stuck. Irving went from 2:56 of the second quarter to 5:48 of the fourth quarter without making a single field goal. Contrast Irving’s play with that of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who shook off foul trouble to deliver 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 4 assists.
Irving wasn’t alone in missing shots, especially in the third quarter, where the game turned with Antetokounmpo on the bench with four fouls. He had ample company clanking on Causeway Street. The Celtics were a paltry 1 of 11 from 3-point range in the third and only 5 of 30 in the game at that point. They shot 7 of 21 overall in the third quarter. The Celtics finished the night 34 of 90 from the field and 9 of 41 from 3-point range. The Bucks were even worse from beyond the arc at 8 of 37, but 66 of their points came in the paint, as the Celtics defense softened.
Irving said his belief in this team is unwavering, but you wonder if you can say the same for his belief in his coach. It did not go unnoticed that Irving went out of his way in his postgame presser to praise Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, a passive-aggressive tack Irving has used in the past when he doesn’t agree with Stevens’s strategies.
“Mike does a great job of calling plays on the fly, plays that have worked all series,” said Irving. “He knows that this is their bread and butter, that they can score on a high clip on these particular plays, these three plays. Regardless of whether we switch or make adjustments he still knows that’s something he can go to.”
He lauded Budenholzer for getting the Celtics brains to buffer on both ends. But Stevens has been to two straight Eastern Conference finals sans Kyrie.
Irving said after that loss in Chicago: “I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.” It might not take that long for the Bucks.
Irving’s statement of defiance looks like another empty promise in a season full of wasted promise from him and the Celtics.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.