BOSTON — There were still about 10 seconds on the clock when Kyrie Irving stepped off the parquet and started in the direction of the Boston Celtics’ locker room. Amid the boos and grumbles in response to his team’s latest lackluster effort, one that pushed the Celtics to the brink of extinction in its Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks, a fan near the tunnel where Celtics’ players exit screamed repeatedly, “Kyrie, don’t leave! We need you!”
The fan, of course, meant this summer when Irving is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract. Irving was already out of sight, however, and TNT’s broadcast showed him walking alone in the hallway leading to Boston's locker room a short time after the final buzzer in a 113-101 loss in Game 4 that put Boston in a 3-1 series hole.
Irving had already ducked into a side door leading to the locker room before any of his teammates had reached the hallway behind him.
There is a chance, of course, it was the final time that Irving will walk off the parquet in a Celtics uniform. The Bucks can close out the series on Wednesday night in Milwaukee and Irving defiantly said to ask him about his future on July 1 when the rumor mill started churning about his uncertain future earlier in the calendar year.
If sticking around is in any way tied to Boston’s postseason success, then this impending second-round exit won’t help Boston’s pitch. Irving heading for the exits early wasn’t great optics, either. Asked about getting a headstart on his Game 4 exit, Irving said simply, “The game was over.”
He wasn’t wrong. But both with his beat-the-traffic departure and his prolonged shooting slump, Irving sidestepped all accountability. To be fair, he deserves a bit of credit for stepping in front of the cameras — especially on a night when teammates like Gordon Hayward were quick to slip out of the locker room while reporters were entering — and yet Irving might have compounded matters by being a bit standoffish in his postgame responses.
Like when he was asked if he had ever endured a shooting slump like the one he’s currently mired. Since Boston took a 1-0 series lead, Irving has connected on just 19 of 62 shots over the last three games, shooting 30.6 percent from the floor and 20 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
When asked about the funk, Irving bristled.
"What do you mean?” Irving asked a reporter. To which his shooting stats were presented.
"Who cares?” said Irving. "I’m a basketball player. Prepare the right way. Like I said, it’s a little different when your rhythm is challenged every play down. You’re being picked up fullcourt. They’re doing things to test you. The expectations on me are going to be sky high.
"I try to utilize their aggression against them and still put my teammates in a great position, while still being aggressive. I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter. I think that the consistency of just going at it, staying aggressive is always going to put us in a great position. Obviously, being more cautious on the turnovers down the stretch when they’re going on runs or managing the game better that way, I feel like I could do better, but in terms of shooting, I mean it’s the series. They’re doing a great job of loading making sure they’re putting a high emphasis on anywhere I go on the court.”
Who cares? Well, most Celtics fans care.
Listen, part of what makes great players great is their irrational confidence. Irving almost certainly believes that the answer to a bad 22-shot performance is putting up 30 shots.
What he probably should have said is that he’s frustrated with himself. That’s he’s disappointed that he hasn’t been able to pull himself from this funk, particularly after suggesting he needed to do more after his initial Game 2 struggles. That night he said all the right things about how Boston brought him here to perform on the big stage.
But he hasn’t. And he doesn’t quite see the problem that Playoff Kyrie has gone missing.
"I missed shots. Shots just didn’t go in,” said Irving. "You go out and prepare, like I said, sometimes they go in, sometimes they aren’t. They do a great job of loading, too. They’re making the paint look crowded whenever I’m driving or wherever I’m going on the court, seeing two or three bodies, sometimes four. Still kicking it out and trying to make the right plays. Just continue to do so. Now it’s time to get ready for Game 5.”
Irving suggested his confidence in his team is “unwavering” despite the 3-1 deficit but, in the same breath, he didn’t exactly cling to the suggestion that he’s been part of teams that have come back from that same death sentence. "It’s hard to make any comparisons at this stage of anything,” said Irving. "It’s really hard because you just have an appreciation of where you were at that time and the amount of experience that was garnered throughout the series and throughout the playoffs.”
Translation: It’s hard to compare these mentally weak young Celtics to a team that had LeBron James and a cast of veterans. Marcus Morris, one of the few guys who actually looked willing to fight for Boston’s playoff life on Monday night, admitted this Celtics team too often allowed offensive struggles to bleed into the defensive end. Said Morris: “I feel like we’ve been pretty soft.”
Few would argue with him.
Nothing about what these Celtics have shown the past three games suggests this team is capable of keeping this season on life support. Boston would have to win three straight games and the Bucks lost two in a row just ONE time this season (March 2-4 at Utah and Phoenix).
Maybe if we had seen extended stretches of Playoff Kyrie. Maybe if Hayward had emerged as the X-factor he could have been in this series. Maybe if Boston played with the sort of mental toughness that we thought they had started to show by routinely rallying back to win four games against the Indiana Pacers in Round 1.
But we’ve seen none of that. Irving has struggled. Hayward has been outplayed by Pat Connaughton. And we’ve seen a team that is incapable of catching itself when things go sideways, a team that defaults to hero ball on offense then sulks, defensively, when those shots don’t fall.
And now they’re left to convince themselves they can change.
"I know that, probably to the outside world, we don't stand much of a chance,” said Al Horford. "We’re at a low point now, as a group we are, that's the reality. We'll have to bring that fight on Wednesday.”
It’s tough to believe Horford. It’d be easier to stomach the team’s disappointing play if these Celtics were more willing to accept their failures and acknowledge that they can’t explain why it all didn’t work out.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. The Celtics gave us an 82-game sample of a team that was far from the championship contender that we expected. They swore they had changed their stripes when the playoffs arrive but this series has only put the spotlight on their deficiencies.
It’s fair to wonder what’s ahead. Wholesale changes could be on the docket, and it all starts with Irving’s future.
The only thing that seems certain now, though, is that Boston will soon have plenty of time to ponder that uncertain summer.
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