Celtics

Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

Celtics Exit Interviews: How did it all change with Kyrie Irving?

What’s going to happen with Kyrie?

I’ve heard the question probably a thousand times since the Boston Celtics’ season ended with a whimper earlier this month in Milwaukee. I’ve heard it from family, friends, mailmen, random Celtics fans at the airport, and baristas at Starbucks. I’ve heard it from people around the NBA and I’ve heard it from people that couldn’t name another player on the Celtics roster.

The answer, if we’re being honest, is that your guess is as good as mine. We spent the season adamant that, at the end of the year, Irving would survey his options and realize he has a pretty good situation in Boston. But, certainly, the way it ended — Kyrie in full “let it fly” mode as the Celtics got steamrolled four straight games by the Bucks, then not exactly owning his playoff struggles — wasn’t a particularly inspiring look. So usually I’ll volley the question.

Do you want Irving back?

Most of the time there’s a hesitation, a sign of the internal debate that a lot of Celtics fans seem to be having having while weighing the All-NBA talent against Irving’s leadership flaws. Maybe it’s simply a very vocal minority but we’ve been surprised by the amount of fans that have suggested that maybe it would be best for both sides to move on.

We’ve already told you why you should be careful what you wish for. From the standpoint of Boston remaining a legitimate title contender, it’s almost certainly best that Irving is back. Maybe it’s just an overly emotional aftermath to a maddening season, one in which Irving might be catching too much of the flak for Boston’s overall struggles. But a lot of fans remain conflicted.

All of which made us think: How exactly did we get here? Fans were downright giddy about the possibility of a long-term future for Irving here and he put up the best statistical season of his NBA career. But Boston’s struggles left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

We begin our postseason Exit Interviews series with a spotlight on Irving.

"If you’ll have me back, I plan on re-signing here"

When Irving stood before fans at the team’s season-ticket holder event before the season and verbally declared his intent to return, it took almost everyone by surprise. And, even if all parties involved were quick to stress that nothing could be truly agreed upon until the summer, Celtics fans were elated — and eager to rub the news in the faces of Knicks fans. 

Over the past seven months, however, things got weird. The Celtics struggled out of the gates and Irving compounded matters with missteps in his quest to be the team’s vocal leader. Even when he was well-intentioned — like publicly declaring how he called LeBron James for advice — the effect was sometimes more bad than good. When the Celtics’ struggles continued, and Irving’s future was deemed more uncertain than his preseason declaration might have suggested, Irving brooded and it further impacted the team negatively.

If you’re looking for a point where the tide of public opinion swung, it’s probably Feb. 1. Irving’s future had been dragged into the public spotlight in the aftermath of Anthony Davis requesting a trade. While it became rather obvious that Irving was merely a pawn in the quest of some to get Davis to Los Angeles (by planting seeds of doubt about whether Boston might still be player in the Davis sweepstakes this summer), Irving didn’t help matters with his angry reaction to the rumors.

“Somebody else is asking for a trade and I’m throw into that,” Irving fumed at a shootaround before Boston’s visit to the Knicks that day. “Uncertainty comes back on me.”

But Irving didn’t flat out deny the suggestion that he might be having second thoughts. He said simply that, “Boston’s still at the head of that race,” but that suggested, for the first time since before his October declaration, that it was still a race.

Two soundbites in particular went into heavy rotation: “Ask me July 1,” and “I don’t owe anybody s---.”

Maybe if the Celtics were sitting atop the East at that point, then all the noise would have gone away. But Boston could never quite get things right. When Irving and Kevin Durant were taped talking outside the locker room at the All-Star Game in Charlotte — the same All-Star Fame that Irving played in despite missing two games before the break with a knee sprain — the speculation only snowballed about whether the two would join forces in New York.

By the end of February, Irving began suggesting that his focus was on the playoffs. Asked why the postseason would be different than the regular season, Irving brashly suggested because he was here.

Then he endured one of the worst shooting slumps of his career and the Celtics got unceremoniously bounced from the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games. When he dismissively stated, “Who cares?” when asked about his shooting woes after Game 4, it drew the ire of already frustrated Celtics fans who screamed at their TV that they, most certainly, cared.

There is little debate about Irving’s talents. He averaged 23.8 points while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 40.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc this season. The Celtics owned an offensive rating of 112.8 when Irving was on the court, and it plummeted by 7.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench.

Irving remains one of the most spellbinding ball-handlers and finishers in the NBA. His room-for-growth checklist would focus more on leadership and accountability than anything on the court (though his defensive intensity and focus could improve, as highlighted in the Milwaukee series).

Ultimately, the question is whether Irving desires to be back. Does he yearn to make amends for his own missteps? Does he want another crack at getting this thing right (albeit, with a cast that could be very different)? 

If Irving does elect to return and the Celtics continue to build around him, how can he win back the fan base? He could show the self-awareness that often evaded him last season. He can own his failures and express a desire for redemption. He can stress again his appreciation for the franchise and the opportunity to wear Celtics green. The city will embrace him; Boston loves nothing better than a redemption story.

You know what else would help? Winning. Winning cures all. irving and the Celtics didn’t do enough of it this year to mask their issues.

And it’s ultimately the reason why the offseason begins with so much uncertainty about Irving and his future. It’s in Irving’s best financial interest to return, with Boston able to offer him a five-year, $190 million maximum salary extension, or about $50 million more than any other suitor.

What’s going to happen with Kyrie? Nothing would surprise us. But it’s hard to imagine just how much has changed in seven months.

It feels a lot like "Game of Thrones": It’s a tantalizing journey that deserves a better ending than what we’ve got at the moment.

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Shane Larkin's lone season with Celtics "huge step" toward EuroLeague superstardom

Shane Larkin's lone season with Celtics "huge step" toward EuroLeague superstardom

BOSTON -- While Shane Larkin appeared in 54 games (two starts) with the Boston Celtics, playing time wasn’t nearly as plentiful as he would have wanted. 

But like most of the players who have come through town since head coach Brad Stevens’ arrival in 2013, Larkin left on good terms. 

And some of the lessons learned during his time in Boston, Larkin credits for being instrumental in his growth and development into arguably the best player in EuroLeague play this past season. 

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“Overall, I became a much better basketball player, playing in Boston,” Larkin said on the Celtics Talk Podcast. “Just the way I saw the game, the way I read the game.”

While playing with Turkey’s Anadolu Efes, Larkin led the team to a EuroLeague-best record while averaging 22.2 points on 53.0 percent shooting from the field, 50.9 percent shooting on 3’s, along with making 90.3 percent of his free throws. 

As a Celtic, Larkin acknowledged having a familiar face also helped his acclimation process. 

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Larkin had an established relationship with Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga, whose father Jim Larranaga was Larkin’s head coach at the University of Miami. 

In Boston, Jay Larranaga was the Celtics’ assistant coach who Larkin spent the most time working with on his shooting and various ball-handling skills. 

On those nights when Larkin would not get into games or play limited minutes, he was back in the gym the following day with Larranaga, focused on improving his all-around game to best ensure when his opportunity to play arrived that he would indeed be ready. 

“That year, on the court and off the court, mentally, physically, I just took a huge step in my development as a man, as a player,” Larkin said. “And it has really helped me get to where I am today.

Larkin added, “Boston has a great thing, a great setup right now. And if you’re lucky enough to be a Celtic at this current time, you’re definitely going to come out of there in much better shape than you went in.”

Ex-Celtic Shane Larkin reflects on EuroLeague season shutdown, his own future

Ex-Celtic Shane Larkin reflects on EuroLeague season shutdown, his own future

BOSTON -- Shane Larkin’s expectations playing internationally weren’t all that different than his days in college at Miami or during his stints in the NBA, the last of which was two years ago with the Boston Celtics. 

He wants to compete; and in doing so, wins usually follow. 

That was indeed the case for Larkin, who played with Turkey’s Anadolu Efes squad, which had its sights on being this year’s EuroLeague champion. 

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But those dreams were dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was at the heart of the EuroLeague cancelling the remainder of this season, one in which Larkin was the league’s top scorer and his team had the best overall record prior to the season prematurely ending. 

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Larkin said on the CelticsTalk Podcast. “We were in first place. We had a great season going on. So, I felt we had a great opportunity to win a championship. But at the end of the day, sometimes things happen like that with a bigger purpose. This virus came around and impacted people in so many negative ways. I just think right now, health is more important than chasing a championship. At the end of the day, I think it’s the right decision. Health is the most important thing and that’s the reason they canceled it, so it’s cool with me.”

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Larkin had an Instagram post recently that included his thoughts on the league resuming play while indicating that a “large majority” of players did not want to resume playing under the current status of the COVID-19 virus. 

Knowing that would mean an abrupt and premature ending to this fairy tale of a season for him and his teammates, was a tough pill to swallow. 

“We were all dying to get out there and play,” he said. “We’re all disappointed that we won’t have a chance to fight for a championship but we’re all good with the decision because health is the most important thing.”

Larkin, who was with the Celtics during the 2017-2018 season, became an international star this season. 

He led Anadolu Efe in scoring with 22.2 points per game while connecting on 53.0 percent of his shots from the field, 50.9 percent from 3-point range and 90.3 percent from the free throw line. 

Larkin’s numbers in Boston -- 4.3 points while appearing in 54 games -- weren’t nearly as good as they were overseas in large part because he was playing behind Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart.

He looks back on his time in Boston with fond memories; well, most of the time, anyway. 

“I used to think about it (that season) a lot,” Larkin said. “Especially the way it ended for me; it was kind of unfortunate.”

Larkin’s season ended in Game 4 of Boston’s playoff series against Philadelphia when he suffered a left shoulder injury while trying to go underneath a Joel Embiid screen.

“I was done for the rest of the playoffs,” Larkin recalled. “So I always think about how I could have maneuvered that screen a little differently to try and help the team out. But it was an unbelievable run. I saw a lot of guys take their careers to another level in that series.”

The same can be said for Larkin with what he has done overseas. 

His numbers this past season validate him as arguably the best player in the EuroLeague, which is widely considered the next-best professional basketball league in the world, behind the NBA.

Larkin will be a free agent this summer and is open to pretty much whatever comes his way be it in the NBA or picking up where he left off overseas. 

“I don’t know when any of my free agency stuff will start,” Larkin said. “So, I’m sitting around, waiting for that to happen; stay in shape, keep my body right and see what happens. In this current state, nobody knows what’s going to happen anytime soon. So, I have to stay prepared for any opportunities that come across and see what happens."