At the conclusion of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, nobody was concerned about what would happen with the Boston Celtics.
Sure. Giving up a 2-0 series lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers was not ideal. After years of sharp front office work and patience, LeBron James once again presented too great of an obstacle to overcome for one of the league’s most storied franchises.
But this time Boston could wait.
The Celtics reached the Eastern Conference finals without the help of their two best assets. Terry Rozier’s ascension and the brilliance of then-rookie Jayson Tatum became one of the best story-lines of the postseason. As good as this Boston team looked, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward surely would push the roster over the top. Without having to make any moves, the Boston Celtics could just copy and paste the same formula into next year with the addition of their two All-Stars and be right back in the Eastern Conference finals armed with the youth and versatility to provide the Golden State Warriors with a fresh Eastern Conference challenge.
It is now March 2019 and the narrative has become much bleaker. There are things on Boston’s checklist that have yet to materialize in regular season play. Jayson Tatum has understandably failed to reach lofty second-year expectations. He has been solid but has not made the leap in progress that many hoped for after a brilliant rookie campaign. Gordon Hayward has also shown flashes but is still undeniably not yet the player that Boston hoped they were acquiring from the Utah Jazz. The most important thing has happened, however. Kyrie Irving is playing and healthy.
He came to Boston after averaging 29 points against the Golden State Warriors in the 2017 finals. After gaining invaluable experience playing alongside LeBron, Kyrie was in his prime and ready to lead a young talented Boston team and carve out his own legacy away from James’s shadow. A healthy Irving on a roster with a lion’s share of versatile skilled wings should be a surefire formula for success.
Could Kyrie Irving's Nets Ties, NY Ties Affect Free Agency Decision? https://t.co/gUBaBkutac
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) February 10, 2019
Instead, talk shows this week are asking if the Celtics may actually be better without Kyrie. Boston is 1-6 in their last 7 games with Irving in the lineup and 6-0 without him. That stat is perfect for February hot-take season which takes place post All-Star break during the least important part of the season. The Celtics are 5th in the East but have struggled all season and have shown troubling signs of disconnect in the locker room.
We need to remember that sometimes leadership is a learned skill. Kyrie was talented pre-LeBron but was just learning to be a professional himself an played on an noncompetitive roster. This is the first year that he is in a position mentally and physically to potentially lead an NBA contender.
What we have seen this year is a coming of age for both the younger Celtics and their 26-year-old vet. Growth is a product of taking a few lumps along the way. Kyrie has been criticized for speaking too much while berating the efforts of his teammates and also not speaking enough when recently saying “That’s up to Brad” while being questioned about team defense. Both criticisms come from a fair place. Irving has not been a great locker room leader this season. The Celtics are struggling and people are selling their stock FAST.
Kyrie Irving has shifted from his commitment to re-signing with the Celtics: “I don’t owe anybody shit.”
— Stefan Bondy (@SBondyNYDN) February 1, 2019
However, the playoffs are approaching. While he will need to learn to be more careful with his words, Kyrie is not in Boston for his media savvy. He was brought into town due to his ability to win games and get buckets when it mattered. The Celtics may be the 5th seed in the East but have shown throughout the season what they are capable of when playing at their highest level.
When it comes down to playoff time we look at certain stars differently. One major knock on MVP favorite James Harden is his lack of ability to translate his dominance into the playoffs. No one should question whether Kyrie is going to show up come playoff time.
Kyrie delivered time and again in the Dwyane Wade role as the closer and clutch shot maker in Cleveland alongside LeBron James. His shot over Stephen Curry in game 7 of the 2016 finals should hang over the living room table of every house in Cleveland. He knows that there is another gear to reach.
“I don’t get frustrated about this stuff anymore,” he said after a loss at home to the Trail Blazers. “It’s just part of the regular season. In the playoffs, when we can plan for a team, prepare for a team, I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games, so.”
While seeing is believing, Irving’s optimism is not delusional. The Celtics are locked into the 3-5 seed in the East and should just use the next 20 games to get into playoff shape. The playoffs reward versatile, shot making teams that play defense. The Celtics have been a top 5 defensive team all year long and have plenty of guys capable of making plays over a 7 game series. Irving was quick to mention the 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers team that went on a losing streak after the All-Star game before sweeping their way through the Eastern Conference. The Celtics won’t be sweeping through the playoffs this year, but there is definitely a possibility that the playoffs unify this roster behind a common cause.
Kyrie has carved out a name for himself by delivering when his team needs him the most. All of the narratives about his leadership and his disposition will disappear if he comes out and has a big impact in the playoffs. A first round matchup against the 76ers or Pacers would likely pave the way to a second round showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks. Even if Kyrie’s decision to leave Boston has already been made, his performance will be crucial to his free agency. Kyrie is a superstar but can you win a championship if he is your best player?
This will be his chance to prove it.
Be careful with burying the Boston Celtics before things really matter. Draymond Green told Golden State Warriors management to draft 16 game (playoff) type players as opposed to 82 game (regular season) players. By that definition, Kyrie Irving has proven one of the best 16 gamers around. Boston is going to need him to perform come playoff time and when many stars tend to dim, Irving has shown that he will shine at his brightest.