Kyrie Irving is never afraid to answer theoretical questions.
And so when he was posed with a somewhat rhetorical — yet also legitimate — inquiry that’s on many minds as basketball season quickly approaches, Irving reached into his bag of tricks once again.
“Can we beat Golden State in a seven game series? Yes,” he prophesied.
ESPN senior writer Jackie MacMullan, in a recent article, addressed a hodgepodge of topics relating to the Celtics star, including his health, his future in Boston, and the team’s short and long-term potential.
Here’s what we learned from the in-depth story.
“I’m moving completely differently.”
Irving’s test run with the Celtics a season ago was clouded by a lingering string of “what-ifs.” If he had been healthy, the Celtics – who were still just a quarter away without him – might have very well advanced to the NBA Finals.
But Irving, hampered by consistent soreness and irritation, was still affected by the hardware that remained from a 2015 surgery to repair a broken kneecap. He sat out from March through June, underwent two additional surgeries in that span, and spent much of the offseason fine-tuning his left knee, according to MacMullan.
Now, she said, Irving believes he’s the healthiest and strongest he’s been in three years. He went to the Bahamas with Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant over Labor Day weekend and played pickup with Jamal Crawford, Zach LaVine, and other NBA players earlier in the summer, and he said he feels great now that the season is approaching.
“I’m moving completely differently,” Irving told ESPN. “I’ve worked on my strength and have a heightened awareness of what my body needs on a day-to-day basis. I spent all summer trying get my left leg to catch up with my right. And it’s there.”
Asked whether Kyrie Irving has all his moves and cuts back, Brad Stevens smiled and replied, “He’s got ‘em.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) September 19, 2018
He told MacMullan that he’s ready to compete with no restrictions, adding that the Celtics knew about the injury and chose to bring him aboard anyway.
“We told them about it,” he said. “It wasn’t a surprise.”
His offseason has certainly been an action-packed one, and largely not in the way he would have hoped. In March, surgeons removed a tension wire that was a lingering source of pain stemming from the initial injury. The next month, surgeons removed two screws from his left patellar tendon to clear a bacterial infection. He was then hooked up to an intravenous line for the next six weeks, according to MacMullan.
She wrote that he has confidence in his lower body that wasn’t present a year ago, which may come as a surprise to Celtics fans who watched him complete dizzying, acrobatic layups last year.
“Now when I go to the rim,” he said in the interview, “I’m able to maintain my strength and athleticism, so when I get under there I have all sorts of options. No limitations. I can pick my spots. It’s a lot better.”
“I know what it takes.”
Fresh off a somewhat successful season marred by injuries, the Celtics – who open training camp this this week – are the prohibitive favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
With Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum one year more savvy, Al Horford’s versatility forever an asset, Gordon Hayward back to nearly full strength, and a deep supporting cast to accompany Irving, the Celtics hope they have the pieces in place to make it back to their first Finals since 2010.
LeBron James’s exodus to Los Angeles is an added lift, but the Kawhi Leonard-led, revamped Raptors, and the up-and-coming 76ers could stand in the way. Irving is confident the Celtics are capable of not only making the Finals, but also doing some damage if they get there.
Irving acknowledged it would be a disappointment if the Celtics don’t make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Taking it two steps further, MacMullan asked if that disappointment would still exist if they fail to win a championship. Irving said yes.
Next Level ☘️ pic.twitter.com/26EOkLculT
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) September 22, 2018
He believes his experience facing the Warriors while he was with the Cavaliers has prepared him for what could lie ahead. Irving noted that “the whole league is on notice,” now that the already-lethal Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins in the offseason. He called them “so dang great” and “a powerhouse,” but Irving is hoping he and his teammates have the edge in June.
“There’s one factor they’re not aware of, and I’m aware of, and that’s that I’ve seen them up close. I’ve played them so many times. We’ve gone in a seven game series, so I know what it takes.”
He called the Celtics’ recent pick-up games “next level,” but he knows they’ll have to improve considerably over the course of the season if they want to get to Golden State’s level. His job, he said, is to communicate to his teammates how to get from point A to point B.
Asked to elaborate on why he’s so sure winning it all is attainable goal, he turned to the team’s depth and talent.
“Because of who we have, and what we’re establishing not just for this season, but for hopefully the next few years, something that’s pretty special.”
Wait a minute…the next few years?
Those are words Celtics fans have wanted to hear for quite some time. A simple proclamation, however, certainly doesn’t guarantee Irving will stay past this summer, when he has the option to opt out of his deal and become a free agent.
Irving has been linked to Jimmy Butler, in rumors that the stars will team up and play for the Knicks, but Irving said he hasn’t talked to Butler at length since 2016.
It’s difficult to glean what he’s actually thinking, as he’s been known to playfully toy with the media and the public in the past. Though he views the world as flat, his answers are anything but.
He did, however, give the Celtics faithful a nugget to cherish.
“Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?” he said, referencing the Celtics’ new practice facility in Brighton. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford and Gordon Hayward? People keep saying, ‘Why won’t he commit to Boston?’
“Well,” he continued, “there are financial implications involved.”
If Irving had signed an extension this past summer, he would have potentially left more than $80 million on the table than if he waits and re-signs with the Celtics next summer, MacMullan said. He said he knows it’s going to be a constant story, but he believes he has no other choice. He said he’s “finally getting acclimated” in Boston, and his focus is on this year.
“Last year it was almost like a trial,” Irving told MacMullan. “There was a lot going on. It was overwhelming at times, to be honest. The focus needed to be directed on getting better and helping my new team win a championship, instead of focusing on all the outside noise that affected me personally.”
He said he was afraid to admit that he was distracted initially, because he wanted to be prideful and respectful, but he believes he’s grown since and is keeping his teammates in the loop throughout.
Time will tell if he stays in Boston long term. Whether the Celtics win a championship this season could ultimately play a major role in the direction of his future.
“The drive for greatness, the drive to win a championship, that’s all I care about,” Irving said. “The rest of it doesn’t matter.”