By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
If Kyrie Irving wasn’t the real problem with the Celtics all season, he was in the final four games.
In Game 1 against the Bucks, Irving and the Celtics flashed the same potential that occasionally bubbled to the surface throughout the 2018-19 season. But Games 2-5 too closely resembled the many times they collapsed into crushing, baffling rock-bottoms. Those weren’t always because of Irving on the floor, but he’s justifiably facing pointed fingers after the way his series – and the Celtics’ season – ended.
Irving scored an unacceptable 15 points on just 6-for-21 shooting (28.6 percent) in Game 5, somehow an even less efficient effort than his previous two outings. He shot 25-for-83 (30.1 percent) in the Celtics’ four-game losing streak in an offensive face-plant. He didn’t facilitate, either – just one assist against three turnovers. The rest of the team fell in line behind their supposed leader, shooting a not-much-better 31.9 percent.
Though he remains one of the most dynamic offensive talents in the NBA, Irving still isn’t what he thinks he is. He’s not in the same tier as the league’s bigger, longer superstars who are more of a factor on defense. And Irving definitely isn’t one of the greats of his era if he plays as poorly as he did over the Celtics’ losing streak, with the season on the line and having verbalized his greatness as recently as this gem after an absolute clunker in Game 4: “I’m that great of a shooter.”
It’s the kind of collapse that assaults you with cognitive dissonance. You can’t win a championship without a player like Irving, but can you win with Irving as the player? Does Irving even want to try to win in Boston in the first place?
When asked about the disappointment of losing and whether he’d consider staying with the Celtics, he said took the loss as a learning experience. That shouldn’t be enough of an explanation for Celtics fans, especially if that’s how he leaves the team.
“Truth be told, it’s no time to be disappointed,” Irving said in his postgame press conference. “I think that you take your lessons, you take your ass-whooping … and you move on. It’s a basketball journey. Obviously you want to keep playing. But [the Bucks] put a halt to that, and they deserve the series. They played like they wanted it. I’m looking forward to seeing them go in the Eastern Conference Finals and play their next opponent. It was a great opponent for me to play against for the rest of my career, because I know I’ll never forget this. The taste of feeling defeat in this type of style, being down 1-4, I haven’t felt. For me it’s just moving on to the next thing, and just seeing where that ends up.”
The whole learning experience thing would be more acceptable if Irving played to his usual standard. You could say “valiant effort” if Irving went toe-to-toe with the clearly superior Giannis Antetokounmpo and simply came up short. You could hoard some faith for next season if there was a guarantee of one. This wasn’t any of that. Miles away.
It’s too early to assume Irving has been humbled in any way. But hopefully he learned something from the disillusionment of a promising season gone awry. The question is where he will apply those lessons next season.
Irving’s bloviating on the Bucks, and his seeming giddiness to go home and cheer them on, won’t go over well. Neither will the lack of any mention of the Celtics in that answer. He obviously didn’t have to commit right then and there, but like he did for much of the season, Irving did himself no favors with his words. And ultimately the real problem is the letdown that transpired on the floor.
His basketball feats often more than made up for the groans and eye-rolls. If Irving played like he did in the 2016 NBA Finals with the Cavs – well, first of all the Celtics would probably still be alive. But he would also transcend any “F*** Thanksgiving” or “I’m an actual genius” by demonstrating that kill-you confidence in the actual games and delivering another green & white banner.
That swagger evaporated after Game 1. And if it wasn’t planted in your mind already, these games should make you wonder if the whole Kyrie Irving Experience™ is worth the investment.
Sometimes that thought entered the conversation when the Celtics had one of their many mystifying cold spells. It was mostly dismissed. It sounds like such an outrageous opinion. What would the Celtics do if they lost such a gifted player?
But if you need facts, well…
— The Celtics’ regular season record with Irving active was 37-30 (.552). With Irving out of the lineup, their record was 12-3 (.800).
— In the 2018 playoffs without Irving, the Celtics went 11-8 and played until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In the 2019 playoffs with Irving, they went 5-4 and lost in the second round to the team they’d beaten in the same spot a year earlier.
It may not be that simple. But these are now truths. Irving may have just played his last game as a Celtic without ever proving that the team is truly better off with him on the court.
The only solution could be adding an even better player to be the true anchor. What if Danny Ainge pulls off a trade for Anthony Davis? Could he somehow convince Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant to sign?
Those scenarios aren’t exactly realistic. But the point is if Ainge wants to win with Irving, he’s going to need one of those guys. Because Irving is not one of those guys. He’s not as great of a player or leader (at least not yet) as he repeatedly made himself out to be during the Celtics’ season. For his season to end in such ugly fashion only reinforces that argument.
Irving as an elite No. 2 option? As good of a talent scenario as you can hope for. But can Irving accept that? The hope for him, and whatever team he chooses this summer, is that he realizes what he truly is as a player or leader. Doubtful.
As doubtful as the idea that the Celtics will ever find their way as long as Irving is the central figure.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.