MINNEAPOLIS -- When you've been this good for so long, you learn to embrace the spotlight. Kyrie Irving has been doing so as part of his basketball life for years.
But that all changed five minutes into the season.
When Irving was traded to Boston from Cleveland, his excitement about the change was fueled in part by playing with Gordon Hayward who, like Irving, was ready to embrace all the pressure that comes with playing a prominent role for the most storied franchise in the NBA.
But in the days and months that followed Hayward’s dislocated left ankle injury just five minutes into the opener at Cleveland, which sent the Celtics’ season into a vortex no one knew how they would handle, often overlooked was how Hayward’s injury made an already-intense amount of scrutiny on Irving, even greater.
“Gordon’s a huge piece,” Irving said. “And when we lose him . . . I think all hell broke loose for a little bit. Just like, what are they gonna look like?”
More specifically, what are they gonna look like with Irving as the face of the franchise, the undisputed leader of this team no matter how many times he says he’s just one of the team leaders?
Following the Celtics’ practice on Wednesday, when he declared he would play after sitting out Monday’s win at Chicago due to left knee soreness, Irving opened up about how things changed perception-wise following Hayward’s injury which the Celtics consistently have said will keep him out for the rest of the season despite Howard’s continued efforts to keep hope alive that he can return in time to play this season.
“Losing Gordon was just, a few more eyes on me that I had to be aware of,” Irving said. “It’s tough because it is an adjustment. Coming into a new environment and you kind of expect this to be the team, and one big piece goes down. You have to figure it out from there.”
And Irving has done just that, being named to his fifth All-Star team last month in part because of his impressive numbers -- 24.8 points, 5.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game -- but also because of the Celtics’ record, which has been at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings most of this season.
Boston (45-20) comes into Thursday’s game against Minnesota (38-28) trailing Toronto (46-17) by two games for the best record in the East.
And a big part of Boston’s quest to move back into the top spot hinges on the health of Irving, who suffered a left knee fracture in the 2015 NBA Finals which, to some degree, requires a bit of maintenance on his part. It can be as simple as missing a game to let the knee rest, or holding him out for multiple games if the medical staff deems it necessary for that course of action to be taking.
Although he was on the court for only three-fourths of Wednesday’s practice, coach Brad Stevens likes what he saw out of Irving.
“He looked like he was in pretty good spirits and moving well,” Stevens said. “And it’ll be up to how he wakes up and feels and everything else.”
Irving was pretty emphatic about playing Thursday against the Timberwolves.
But as he knows as well as anyone, the best-laid plans are not immune to having a last-minute audible called.