So this is how it ends for Kyrie Irving, with one bad shot after another, with one rim rattling miss after the next. It was 14 errant shots in Game 2, another 14 in Game 3 and 15 in Game 4. Facing elimination in Game 5, Irving submitted a 6-21 stinker in a lopsided 116-91 defeat, etching his name in Celtics history as the first player since Sam Jones in 1966 to take at least 15 shots and shoot under 40% in four straight playoff games.
Irving’s season is over.
Before we get into the will he or won’t he, before we read the tea leaves and overanalyze the field, let’s stipulate that Boston is better with Irving. The let-him-walk brigade has been out in force the last few games, and Irving’s awful play fueled them. But the idea that the Celtics should simply let him walk is absurd. The notion that Boston is closer to a championship with Terry Rozier manning the point guard position is foolish, a scalding hot take with no substance behind it. Irving is 27, an annual All-NBA candidate and a proven clutch player.
He was terrible against Milwaukee. That doesn’t mean he should be branded with a scarlet letter.
Boston wants Irving back, and they will have about seven weeks to figure out how to do it. In October, Irving told a group of season ticket holders—and a worldwide audience that watched the video of it online—that he intended to return. In February, caught in the middle of Kevin Durant’s free agent drama that was magnified by the Knicks decision to dump Kristaps Porzingis to clear double-max, Irving-friendly cap space—Irving declared, colorfully, that he doesn’t owe anyone anything.
Who knows what he will think come July 1st?
All season, Irving has appeared varying degrees of unhappy. There was Boston’s sluggish start and early exit from the ranks of conference frontrunners. There was the divide between the young stars who pushed the Celtics to the 2018 conference finals and the veteran-heavy group effectively supplanting them. There was Irving’s leadership, which varied from biting critiques of the team’s young players to an all-is-well attitude as the season burned down around him.
This is what Irving wanted, of course—a franchise of his own. Boston may not have been at the top of his list when he asked out of Cleveland in 2017. But the Celtics offered one of the NBA’s best GM’s, a rising, player-friendly coach and a roster loaded with talent. If Irving bolts for, say, New York, it will be amount to an admission that being The Man isn’t all its cracked up to be, that he is happier just getting buckets while someone else carries the leadership mantle.
Then again, he may stay. There are plenty of reasons to. The lure of playing in New York for Irving is real. He’s a north New Jersey product who grew up dreaming of playing at Madison Square Garden. But the Knicks won an NBA-worst 17 games last season. There is an overwhelming league-wide sentiment that Durant is headed there next summer, and decent odds (14%) of securing the No. 1 pick at the draft lottery next week. But until those things happen the Knicks are still a basketball wasteland, and even if they do there is no guarantee that a Durant/Irving pairing coupled with a high lottery pick offers Irving a better chance to win than he has now.
He would have to take less guaranteed money to leave, too, and don’t dismiss the weight of a five-year, max-level contract on Irving’s decision. Irving played 67 games this season, dodging the knee problems that plagued him at the end of last year. But Irving has undergone multiple knee surgeries in recent years, and has spoken at length about the fear he felt last spring, when the metal in his knee caused an infection, when he spent months shoveling down antibiotics and needed a catheter inserted into a vein running to his heart. For a brief time, Irving felt his athletic mortality.
Irving wasn’t interested in engaging questions about his future on Wednesday. “I’m just trying to get back to Boston,” Irving deadpanned. He praised the Bucks and acknowledged the obvious: This season had been a difficult one.
“A lot of lessons to take from this season,” Irving said. “From Day 1 of training camp all the way until now, it just felt like a rush. I tried to enjoy as many moments as I could. It really comes down to great team basketball. Who is playing better at a certain time of the year. The connectivity, being able to respond. They showed all year why they were who they were. They were very dominating in this series … collectively as a group, they outplayed us as a group.”
“There’s no time to be disappointed. You take your lessons, you take the ass whooping that they handed us and you move on. It’s a basketball journey. You want to keep playing, but they put a halt to that … I won’t forget something like this, the taste of feeling defeat in this type of style.”
The Boston rebuild has been remarkable, but the Celtics enter this offseason as a team in flux. They could have as many as four first round picks in June’s draft, but little need for any of them. They have the pieces to yank Anthony Davis out of New Orleans, but if Irving walks emptying the war chest for a player in the final year of his deal makes little sense. There is still a lot of young talent on this roster but that roster figures to get very expensive in the years to come.
This season ended the way it should, poorly, because that’s how Boston has played much of the season. “Our issues,” Brad Stevens said, “Have been well chronicled.” The team that seemed to grow every year under Stevens could never find its footing.
“That’s probably the part that eats at me the most,” Stevens said. “Been a head coach for 12 years. We let go of the rope and cracked more than we probably should have. The team that doesn’t crack usually wins. As far as any other year I have been a head coach, it’s certainly been the most trying. I did a bad job.”
Irving didn’t tip his hand on Wednesday, and for the next few weeks his relationships with everyone—from Stevens to team president Danny Ainge to a locker room he struggled to lead—will be put under the microscope. Irving’s first two years in Boston were a failure. Now we wait to see if he wants five more.