Marcus Smart capped Kyrie Irving reunion week by noting he’s sick of hearing about Kyrie Irving.
Same here, Marcus. Same here.
Smart was one of a handful of Celtics players to seek out Irving after the Friday afternoon loss in Brooklyn. Asked about the interaction, Smart told reporters again how there are “no hard feelings,” and that Irving is “my brother.” But he also sternly suggested he’d prefer the conversation around this team focus more on the players that still wear green.
Smart isn’t wrong. And he'll be relieved to know the Kyrie chatter should die down for at least the next three months. Alas, because Irving didn’t play Wednesday night at TD Garden, it’s likely to bubble up again when the Nets return in early March.
We get Smart's larger point: The Celtics are 13-5 and are projected for a win total in the mid-50s that would exceed most all preseason prognostications. The team has been highly entertaining, winning a slew of close games as part of an early-season, 10-game winning streak. It’s clear the ceiling of this team is much higher than we probably expected when they began season, at least if this team can maintain some semblance of good health.
Alas, you cannot discuss the 2019-20 Celtics and what they are achieving without contrasting it to the struggles of a season ago. You cannot discuss the progress of players without noting the way they were stunted last year. You cannot note the good vibes emanating from the Auerbach Center without recalling how tense that place was with Irving brooding throughout the second half of last season.
The Celtics have worked tirelessly since the end of last year to steer the conversation away from what went wrong. Members of the front office, coach Brad Stevens, and returning players have all repeatedly insisted that Irving did not deserve the brunt of the blame for last season’s woes but it’s clear the lessons learned have helped shape this year’s squad, from basic roster construction to how this team plays on the court.
Smart essentially repeated what Jaylen Brown said Wednesday, just a bit more emphatically. Brown noted that “the media has made [the Irving drama] much bigger than what it actually is,” and added, “I don’t think anybody in Boston should have anything to complain or boo about, to be honest.”
After the game Friday, a small stream of teammates greeted Irving after the Nets’ 112-107 triumph at the Barclays Center. Brad Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye, Jayson Tatum, Smart, and even newcomer Kemba Walker shared a moment with Irving.
When reporters inquired about the confab, Smart bristled a bit.
“Kyrie’s no longer with the Boston Celtics,” Smart told reporters from his locker stall. "And it’s a slap across everybody on this team now to keep hearing Kyrie’s name because every last one of these guys has put in the work and continue to put in the work. We’re here, we’re still competing. And yet everybody, including the Boston fans, want to talk about Kyrie. Let’s talk about the Boston Celtics.”
Celtics fans will always have a curiosity with the Nets, including how they play when Irving is sidelined. Some Boston fans are hoping that the Nets endure some of the same strife Boston did, because then they could use it as evidence to suggest Irving was the problem here. There’s bitterness because Irving told fans he was coming back and then he changed his mind.
Celtics players don’t seem to hold quite the same grudge. Most of the returning players in Boston’s locker room have spoken highly of their time with Irving and recited the company line about the Celtics’ problems running deeper than one player. If you gave those players truth serum, they might admit they’re perfectly content that he decided to move on from Boston but they truly respect his basketball abilities and the chance to play alongside him.
After all the struggles last season, Celtics players would simply prefer the season spotlight fall on all the reasons this team has enjoyed early-season success. Walker has been as good as advertised; Brown has made obvious strides particularly with his ball-handling, playmaking, and overall aggressiveness; Tatum is on an All-Star path with a better shot profile; Gordon Hayward was playing some of the team’s best basketball before he broke his hand; and Smart is still doing all the things that make him maybe the team’s most indispensable piece. This team is filled with enjoyable role players from lunchpail types like Wanamaker to chatty rookie Grant Williams.
Irving’s departure is part of their story but it shouldn’t be the entire story. Eventually, it will be a footnote. This week, it was certainly the headline.
Smart (and the rest of us) should just hope that the Celtics and Nets avoid each other in the postseason. What a circus that would be. Entering Friday’s play, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projected only a 16 percent chance of a postseason meeting but it’s not hard to see that number skyrocketing if the Nets climb a bit and a 3-6 or 4-5 pairing becomes a stronger possibility.
Let’s cross that bridge when we get there. It’s time for the Irving chatter to die down and the focus to shift to what the current Celtics are doing.
Well, at least until Al Horford returns to Boston for the first time on Dec. 12 and another former Celtic dominates the news cycle for a few days.
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