ORLANDO — The Boston Celtics’ locker room had all but cleared out by the time Kyrie Irving stood up, removed the earbuds that he had been popped in while decompressing in his locker chair, and made his way to the showers.
Irving had been visibly upset with the way Boston’s final play unfolded, likely preferring the ball would have found its way to his hands with a chance to win the game. The Celtics instead settled for a tough 21-foot fadeaway by Jayson Tatum that clanged off the iron in a 105-103 loss at the Amway Center.
Dressed in a gray Nike sweatsuit and with a black hat pulled low, Irving eventually plopped down on a folding table in front of reporters. He dismissed the first five questions he faced in less than 50 words, an oddity for a player that’s typically loquacious in his responses.
Asked about Boston’s inconsistencies, Irving launched into a response that went on for over two minutes, citing Boston’s lack of experience as a major factor in the team’s seesaw play. Irving suggested that younger players are not playing hard enough for a full 48 minutes and said they’ve got to appreciate more the opportunity that’s in front of them.
While Irving ultimately pinned much of the blame on himself for not being able to get the most out of the roster, he also noted how those younger players, seeing a potentially long window of being a title contender, might not be as eager to embrace the work that’s needed for Boston to be great.
And Irving is eager to be great right now. His response to the query on explaining Boston’s ups and downs, in full:
"Experience. It’s the best thing I can say is experience. We’re lacking it and, because of that, we have a lot of learning to do. So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes. When your job is called upon, you’ve got to do it to the best of your ability. You’ve got to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there.
"You’ve got to appreciate being out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against. It matters the type of preparation you have, what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced of just every single day. It’s not easy to be great.
"So the things you’re doing, that you’ve done your entire career, of being able to coast by in certain situations, and you’ve gotten away with your youth and stuff like that. Being on a championship ball club, you can’t get away with that. You see the fans going crazy. You see it gets loud.
"I know from the majority of the fact that we’re better than most teams in this league. It’s just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it. So until we do that every single night and realize our depth is a positive and all the wishes and could haves and should have done that, once that goes out the window, then we’ll be better. But until then, we’re going to keep having these ups and downs and these lulls of going against teams on the road and they just know they can take advantage of us down the stretch, or when this group is in or that’s group out.
"It has to be a cohesion. I’ve got to be better as the leader of the team as doing so and making sure these guys have more experience in certain situations like that, being more communicative. So I put it on me of just being better.”
There’s a lot to digest there. Irving, who has been critical of Boston’s younger players at times this season and seems to be suggesting that the young ‘uns don’t always play with the same urgency that the veterans know is required. Al Horford, who is always careful not to assign much blame, echoed this sentiment when he said, "I don’t think that we’re playing hard enough all the time.”
The Celtics had been up 8 when the reserves started to roll in with 3:16 to play in the first quarter. Boston generated just a single free throw over the final 4:06 of the frame, allowing the Magic to rally back. Boston went another 99 seconds without scoring to start the second quarter as Orlando built as much as an eight-point lead of their own.
It’s unfair to pin Irving’s frustrations on one player; he clearly wants more from all of the stars from last year’s playoff run. That would include someone like Terry Rozier, who missed all five shots he took and had just two assists over 17 minutes while going scoreless. Tatum battled foul trouble Saturday and needed 16 shots for 16 points, while Jaylen Brown and the Celtics wing defenders had trouble corralling Terrence Ross as he erupted for 25 points off the Orlando bench.
Boston had won four straight at home to start the new calendar year and it was fair to wonder if its inconsistencies were behind them. Now, they’ve dropped two in a row to start this road trip.
After Irving’s long response, he was asked to compare the ups and downs of Cleveland’s title teams with what Boston is currently facing. He said there was no comparing them.
"I was on the oldest team in the league, guys were on, I don’t want to say their last legs, but it’s all or nothing. Their window was closing, so they knew it,” said Irving. "Their joy in what they were doing was coming from a place of ‘This is my last thing that I’m doing before my career is over. I’m trying to win a championship.’ Every single day was built towards that.
"Here, these guys are coming into a window where it’s very big, they have 14 years, 13 years, however many years you wanna say, and you know the emphasis on every day doing it, it doesn’t become important to some young guys until they get later in their career where they have to appreciate their talent more, they have to adjust, or do something.”
Irving started to digress, pointing to the strides the team had made before the last two losses. He reaffirmed that he’ll always remain patient but you can tell that some of these tough losses are testing that patience.
"I try not to take too much into other games but this one hurt, just from the simple fact that we haven’t been well on the road, we’ve lost games we should have won, and it’s frustrating,” admitted Irving.
Irving was asked about the difficulty in re-establishing chemistry after he and Hayward missed so much time last season. Stevens had already downplayed that notion, reminding a reporter that this team is 42 games into a new season.
Irving noted that the expectations are simply different this year.
“We had nothing to lose last year,” he said. "We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free, and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that.
"We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real every single day, so, that’s new. It’s tough. It’s hard.”
Irving wants the team’s younger players to work harder when things go awry. He wants them to be mentally tougher when things don’t go as planned. Irving believes that, in order for the Celtics to truly accomplish their goals, this team needs the younger players to want to be great as much as Irving so clearly yearns for this team to reach that level.
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