BOSTON — His locker room influence eroding and a once promising season slipping away, Kyrie Irving reached out to the most unlikely of sources: LeBron James. And while picking the brain of his former teammate, he offered up an even more unlikely message: I’m sorry.
I’m sorry, Irving said, for being too focused on his stats. I’m sorry, Irving said, for being so resistant to James’s leadership. I’m sorry, Irving said, for being “the 22-year old kid who wanted everything, right now.”
Boston edged Toronto in a 117-108 thriller on Wednesday, and that is a story. It was very on-brand for the unpredictable Celtics to follow up three straight losses to second-tier teams with a win over a franchise that holds one of the NBA’s best records. Irving was the catalyst, submitting a 27-point, 18-assist masterpiece in one of Boston’s biggest games of the season. “I think everyone forgot I could pass,” Irving said, with Al Horford (24 points), Gordon Hayward (18) and Jayson Tatum (16) benefitting from Irving’s efforts to jog everyone’s memory.
The return of Aron Baynes gave Boston a … oh come on, really? Kyrie Irving called who? Inside the Celtics locker room, interest in a slump-busting win vanished when James’s name spilled out of Irving’s mouth. This is, after all, the player he so badly wanted away from and who—to our knowledge, anyway—he has had little more than a cordial relationship with since Cleveland flipped him to Boston 17 months ago.
Desperate times, though, and last Saturday’s debacle in Orlando—where the Celtics fell to the reeling Magic, prompting Irving to call out his younger teammates in the locker room after—pushed Irving to desperate measures. After playing with house money last season, Boston has struggled in the spotlight. There have been a handful of highs (beating Toronto, for example), far too many lows (losses to New York, Phoenix and the Magic top the list) and a team that has rarely looked as good as the sum of its parts.
And so Irving, fresh off a frustrating performance and running out of answers, phoned the most unlikeliest of friends.
“I [felt] like the best person to call was him, because he's been in this situation," Irving said. "He's been there with me. I've been the young guy, being a 22-year-old kid and I want everything. I want everything right now. Coming off an All-Star year, starting, and this heck of a presence is coming back [to Cleveland] and now I got to adjust my game to this guy.
"You take it personal but, at the end of the day, he wants what's best. And he has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture. So, I think what that brought me back to was like, alright, how do I get the best out of this group to the success they had last year and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship.”
Wow. To be fair, Irving and James are far from blood enemies. Irving has often cited the lessons learned playing with James. They shared an All-Star locker room last season. “The kid,” as James regularly referred to Irving, just wanted his own team. Still, if Irving is able to repair some of the fissures that have formed inside Boston’s locker room the Celtics could, incredibly, have James to thank.
Take Jaylen Brown, who fired back at Irving after Boston’s loss to Brooklyn on Monday, saying the Celtics “can’t be pointing fingers” and that leadership “starts from the top to the bottom, not the bottom to the top."
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Did Irving dig in? He could have. Brown is a rising prospect with a pair of conference finals appearances on his resume. Irving? He’s got the title and a clip of him banging in a championship clinching three in Game 7 in his back pocket. He could have dismissed Brown’s complaints. He didn’t.
“[Jaylen] was right,” Irving said. “I got to do the right things and not point fingers at individuals and really realize what we can do as group, despite when we go on the road or the mishaps we may have. I've been there to the championship. I've tasted it. But I can't expect that [the young players] are going to get it. I'm just really working on my patience, and just coming to helping these guys realize that we can do it against the best teams, but in order to be that championship-level team, we got to do that every single day to help our team prove to not just the Raptors or Golden State that we can play with them, but we got to prove it to every team that we can really play with them.
“I did a poor job of setting an example for these guys of what it's like to get something out of your teammates. You go and you say something publicly and it ends up received in so many different ways and you never know how fragile or what guys are going through when you say things like that. You're expecting results, but at the same time, I should've kept it in house. Going forward, I want to test these young guys, but I can't be a bully like that. I want to get the best out of them, but I can't do it personally like that. That was a learning experience for me of being in this position of really realizing the magnitude of my voice and what I really mean to these guys. I want to see them do well and do that where I empowered them.”
Well then. Maybe January 16, 2019, will be remembered as the night Boston’s season turned around, when the Celtics beat the Raptors and Irving copped to calling an improbable ally. Irving didn’t reveal much about the conversation with James. There was an apology, a request for advice and, said Irving, the “peace of mind” that came with it.
It’s not too late for Boston to salvage its season—the Celtics are just 2.5 games back of a top-four seed and six games back of No. 1, with a home-heavy schedule in front of them—and complete performances like the one against Toronto are definitive signs of life. They need to be better on the road (they're just 10-13) and have to make sure on offense the ball keeps moving (30-plus assists is a magic number). But they go nine-deep with NBA playoff team caliber starters and are battle tested in the postseason.
Chemistry has been an on-going issue, one that a nice win and an interesting anecdote won’t wipe away. Irving has vowed to be a better leader, to build a bridge between the vets and young players, to do more to mold this team into the title contender he believes it can be. For years, Irving absorbed lessons in leadership from LeBron James. Turns out, there was one more.