Kyrie Irving Is the NBA Finals Villain

The hostility will be palpable for the Mavericks star's return to Boston.
Irving (left) will hear plenty of boos in Boston.
Irving (left) will hear plenty of boos in Boston. / Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, as thousands of green-clad fans spilled out of TD Garden and onto nearby Causeway St. still buzzing—and for many, still buzzed—from Boston’s Game 2 win over Indiana, an unmistakable chant filled the warm spring air.

We want Kyrie …

We want Kyrie …

It will be Dallas vs. Boston in the NBA Finals. It’s also Boston vs. Kyrie. Five years after Kyrie Irving’s abrupt exit, public (basketball) enemy No. 1 is back in town. They have met in the playoffs before, with Irving’s Nets wiping the floor with a battered Boston team in 2021 and the Celtics sweeping Brooklyn in ‘22.

A trip to the second round was at stake in those series.

This time, it’s a championship.

Said Irving, “Boston is in the way between our goal.”

In Boston, the disdain for Irving runs deep. He’s Ulf Samuelsson in high tops. Roger Goodell in gym shorts. The most disliked NBA player since Bill Laimbeer. What Reggie Miller is to New York, Irving is to Boston. The only difference is Miller never wore a Knicks uniform.  On eBay, you can still buy Irving jerseys in Celtics green.

Time heals most wounds. Not these. These have barely scabbed over. Irving has not exactly attempted to ease the tension. In 2021, before Irving returned to Boston for a first-round playoff series with Brooklyn, he said he hoped not to hear any “subtle racism.” After beating the Celtics in Game 4, Irving walked to center court and stomped on the logo.

There will inevitably be attempts to rewrite history in the days ahead. Irving didn’t hate Boston. He just wanted to go home to New York. He didn’t have bad relationships with his teammates. That’s media stuff, reporters chasing clicks. He didn’t bail out on his team late in the 2018-19 season. Those Celtics just didn’t have enough.

Nonsense. He wasn’t on the same page as Brad Stevens. He didn’t have much of a relationship with Jaylen Brown. Quit is probably too strong of a word but talk to enough people around that 2018-19 team and it’s clear there’s a belief that late in the season, Irving checked out. In the fall of ’18, Irving grabbed a mic and told a giddy Garden crowd he intended to re-sign there. By the spring, he was gone.

On Sunday, Irving talked about how he better understands leadership. In Boston, he struggled with it. Irving was the only member of the Celtics core with a championship, a status he was known to wield like a cudgel. He knew what it took to win—and he had the ring to prove it. During one locker room discussion, sources told SI, it was pointed out that Al Horford won two championships at Florida. Not the same, Irving said. A Boston assistant was part of a championship staff in Europe. Not the same, he replied. Aron Baynes, a reserve center on the Celtics 2018-19 team who won a title with San Antonio, wasn’t in the room for the exchange. At least one ex-teammate wonders what Irving would have said if he was.

Nov 19, 2018; Charlotte, NC, USA;  Celtics’ Kyrie Irving talks to head coach Brad Stevens.
Things never fully clicked for Irving (11) in Boston. / Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In Dallas, things are different. Throughout the organization, respect for Irving runs deep. He has been an extension of Jason Kidd on the floor. He has been a calming influence off of it. He has figured out how to succeed opposite Luka Dončić, creating an all-time great duo in the process. When Irving returned from a leg injury in January, team officials marveled at the effort Irving was putting in on the defensive end of the floor.

Asked about the skepticism of Irving’s fit in Dallas, Kidd said, “It’s alright to be wrong.”

Some of it is Irving, at 32, facing reality. He has played on three teams in the last six seasons. Four in the last eight. Cleveland, Boston, Brooklyn—Vesuvius left less wreckage. When Irving hit free agency last summer, Dallas was the only team offering real money to sign him.

Some of it is Dallas. The warm Texas climate and its right leaning politics. “He still will have his opinions of what he thinks,” said Kidd. “And here with the Mavs, we support that.” In Kidd, Irving has found a peer. Irving grew up watching Kidd in New Jersey. When Irving was in high school, they connected at a Nike event. “He was pretty good,” said Kidd. Inside the Dallas locker room, the bond between Irving and Kidd is ironclad.

“Just being able to talk the truth or speak the truth to one another,” said Kidd. “I compliment him for trusting me. I'm only here to tell him the truth and to try to help him achieve his goals.”

Kidd knows what it’s like to be a villain in Boston, his Nets years filled with fierce Celtics battles. Kidd was fueled by the hate. At times, Irving has seemed rattled by it. Irving has faced the Celtics 10 times since the 2021 playoffs. He has lost each one. He has had several dustups with fans, admitting in ‘22 that the crass attacks were “about so much you can take as a competitor.” It was bad then. It will be worse now.

“I’m at a place in my life where I don’t consider those past moments,” Irving told ESPN. “I was able to unpack them in a healthy way [and] move forward as a person. I had a rough time there when I was in Boston, dealing with a death in my family and a lot of off-court stuff that I wasn’t ready to handle. Now that I’m in a great place to be able to vocalize how I’m feeling, I’m ready to go back into Boston and have fun with my teammates.”

Fun? That’s up to Irving. Dallas needs a poised Irving. A composed one. This will be a difficult series. The Celtics are 2–0 against the Mavericks this season. They beat them by nine before the trades that brought P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford to Dallas. They beat them by 28 after. They have elite defenders, dynamic wing scorers and will likely have a healthy Kristaps Porziņģis when the series begins next week.

“They have a lot of talented players,” said Kidd. “They've been [to the Finals] before. They have the experience, they're well coached. This is another great test.”

They need Irving. Dončić will get his points. The All-NBA guard is enjoying one of the finest stretches of his career. But he will need help. He will need Irving to be the shot maker he was in the conference finals, where he averaged 27 points—including 36 in Game 5—on 49% shooting. The three-point shooter (42.3%) he has been in the playoffs. The All-Star-level sidekick he has been all season.

Irving is coming to Boston, and make no mistake: a hyped up Boston crowd will be waiting. The boos will be loud, the rhetoric nasty. It will be the most intense environment Irving has played in and this time, everything is at stake. A championship is within reach for Kyrie Irving. It’s the Celtics, it’s Boston standing in front of it.


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Chris Mannix

CHRIS MANNIX

Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix has boxed with Juan Manuel Marquez, played guard in the NBA's D-League and even tried his hand at bull riding at the Sankey Rodeo School in Martin, Tenn. The latter assignment left him with a bunch of bruises and a fractured collarbone. "I liked all the first-person experiences, but fighting Juan was my favorite assignment for SI," says Mannix. "It was a tremendous experience that required brutal training and introduced me to a fear I never knew I had." Mannix has covered the NBA since he arrived at SI in 2003. He currently writes columns and profiles in the magazine and for SI.com and also serves as SI's NBA draft expert. Among the NBA stars he has profiled: Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Andrei Kirilenko. As a teenager Mannix was a locker room attendant with the Boston Celtics for eight seasons (1995-2003) and covered high school sports for the Boston Globe. "Working for the Celtics was like attending a different fantasy camp every game. I spent pregames D'ing up the likes of Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and yes, Michael Jordan. Last time I went one-on-one with MJ he beat me 48-0. I got one shot off … and it was blocked." Boxing is also one of Mannix's specialties. He has reported for SI on several championship fights, annually hands out SI.com's boxing awards and writes the website's "Inside Boxing" column. Mannix won the 2012 Boxing Writers Association of America's awards for Best Feature over 1,750 words and Best Feature under 1,750 words. In addition to his duties at SI, Mannix serves as host of The Chris Mannix Show on NBC Sports Radio (Sundays 6–9 p.m. ET) and is a co-host of Voices of the Game, with Newy Scruggs every Wednesday from Noon–3 p.m. ET. In addition, Mannix is a ringside reporter for Epix and Fight Night on NBC and NBC Sports Network, and is a regular guest and fill-in host on The Dan Patrick Show and The Crossover on NBC Sports Network. He also regularly appears on sports radio shows across the country, including weekly appearances in Miami, Orlando and Salt Lake City.  Mannix received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Boston College in 2003 and graduated from Boston College High School in 1998 (which makes him a double Eagle). He resides in New York City.