SACRAMENTO — The Boston Celtics were not in a good place when they boarded a plane bound for California on Sunday. They were coming off a home loss to the Houston Rockets that point guard Kyrie Irving punctuated by using a total of 43 words to answer nine questions in his postgame news conference.
At one point, he was asked whether he thought the team could cobble together some momentum on its West Coast trip.
“We’ll see,” he whispered.
Just one season removed from a run to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, and seemingly improved by the re-addition of Gordon Hayward and the continued development of their young core, the Celtics were on the brink of falling apart. Any hope they still harbored of being a championship-ready team was as brittle as a toothpick.
But after some reflection and conversation, the Celtics regained a bit of their swagger with back-to-back wins this week against the Golden State Warriors and the Sacramento Kings. The Celtics will see if they can keep the good vibes going Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers, which is anything but certain, especially for Irving, whose season has been clouded by questions about his future with the team.
Such uncertainty does not make Irving unique in the modern NBA — Kevin Durant of the Warriors and Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors are among the other stars who will weigh big decisions in free agency this summer — but the Celtics have let the noise affect them.
With the two wins this week improving their record to 40-26, the Celtics may be showing signs that they are finally, mercifully, learning how to cope.
“That long plane ride helped us out,” Irving said after Tuesday’s lopsided victory over the Warriors. “I’ll just say that. We needed it. We needed it. We were going to get to a point where we were just going to get tired of fighting each other, fighting the outside world when it doesn’t really matter. So we just wanted to come out here and play basketball.
“This is our sanctuary, and we have to do everything we can to protect it. We can’t let anyone infiltrate it.”
Irving, who missed Wednesday’s win against the Kings with a left thigh contusion, is averaging a team-leading 23.4 points a game along with seven assists and 4.9 rebounds, both career highs. He is also shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from 3-point range.
He also ranks among the NBA leaders in mercurial behavior. He has been vague about the specific source of his discontent, but it may have something to do with his pending free agency.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) March 8, 2019
Irving backed off an earlier pledge to re-sign with the Celtics after they struggled at the start of the season. In fact, during a trip to New York to play the Knicks on Feb. 1, he told a group of reporters in his own colorfully abrasive way that he did not owe anyone anything. The Knicks, of course, would be interested in signing Irving, a six-time All-Star who grew up in New Jersey and has a soft spot for Madison Square Garden.
Then came the All-Star break, and a clip of Irving and Durant having an inaudible conversation found its way to the internet, where an army of amateur lip readers tried to decode what they were saying. Worth noting: Irving and Durant are close friends. Also worth noting: The Knicks will have enough cap space this summer for two max contracts.
Irving refused to shed light on their chat, and said it was nobody’s business, which was his prerogative. But it had the general effect of using a napkin to mop up an oil spill.
Since then, Irving has been alluding to nefarious forces and the steep cost of celebrity, saying he hates the spotlight — even as he sells sneakers and moonlights as an actor. He reiterated his disdain this week after collecting 19 points and 11 assists against the Warriors, his 17th double-double this season.
“The business part of it is just what makes it terrible for me — honestly, dealing with all this,” he said, referring to the reporters around him. “I’m going to be honest with you guys: The basketball part of it? I have to keep that fun. That’s where I’m great. Being around my teammates, that’s what makes me happy. And the business part of it is going to be business.”
It was not lost on anyone who witnessed this exchange that Irving was bashing the business of basketball while wearing an Uncle Drew ball cap — the same Uncle Drew character he popularized in soft drink commercials and then parlayed into a movie released last year.
As for the basketball itself, well, Boston has had an uneven season, the product of a team that is not nearly Lakers-level dysfunctional but is not exactly cohesive, either. The Celtics arrived for their game against the Warriors having lost five of their last six games, and their locker room was a joyless place.
Perhaps they needed to get away from Boston. Perhaps they needed perspective. Perhaps Irving needed to speak with Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, and Brad Stevens, its coach, who reminded Irving that the team still had a lot of season left to play. It was not over, not yet, not by any stretch.
“Every team has to find a togetherness in competing,” Stevens said. “Some teams, it takes 60 games. Some teams, it takes 20 games. And bad teams never get there. We hope that it took us 60 games, but we’ll see. We haven’t proven ourselves to be great at that yet for a long stretch of time.”
In their 128-95 win against the Warriors, the Celtics had 38 assists on 49 field goals. They also communicated. When Irving and forward Jaylen Brown botched a play that led to an early turnover, Brown patted himself on the chest to apologize, then appeared to apologize a second time on their next trip up the court.
The next night, in Sacramento, Irving sat behind the visiting bench for the Celtics’ 111-109 victory over the Kings. He was vocal. He did a lot of fist-pumping. And he celebrated when Hayward, less than 24 hours after scoring 30 points against the Warriors, connected on the game-winner.
After suffering a grisly ankle injury in the opening game and missing last season, Hayward has struggled to find a rhythm in his return. Maybe he found it here in California, along with the rest of the team. The Celtics are too talented to let this opportunity go to waste, because who knows how long it will last?
“As long as my teammates are feeling good,” Irving said, “then we’re in a good place.”