Kyrie Irving has a new philosophy for handling the media.
“If you ask me about basketball, I will talk all day,” the Celtics point guard said. “If you ask me about spacing at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter, I will gladly explain it. I’ll tell you what plays worked, about adjustments we make. But when it comes to personal things, or comparing myself to my NBA brothers, like, ‘Do you think you are better than this guy?’ I’m out.”
Irving was in for a deep-dive ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan conducted into Boston’s roller-coaster regular-season. She examined the impact Irving had on the team’s chemistry early in the year, as well as the players’ shift in mentality when the playoffs began.
The Celtics won their first five postseason games. After sweeping the Indiana Pacers, Boston beat the Milwaukee Bucks by 22 points in Game 1. They then suffered a 21-point trouncing to the Bucks on Tuesday, and looked to regain the series lead at home in Game 3 on Friday.
Their superstar sounds confident he has what it takes to extend the season.
“I’ve been playing basketball a lot longer than some of these people analyzing the game,” Irving told ESPN. “I’m an actual genius when it comes to this game.”
Here’s what you need to know about MacMullan’s conversations with the Celtics:
The Celtics had some real problems over the course of the regular season
Before the season began, the Celtics were pegged to improve upon their 55-win total from last season. Boston added Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, but the packed roster failed to meet expectations early. The Celtics stumbled to a 10-10 start, dealt with chemistry issues so severe Irving dialed LeBron James’s number, and entered the playoffs with a 49-33 record.
According to MacMullan, Celtics players noted the point guard’s mood swings left them “treading lightly in the locker room.” Irving promised to be more aware after head coach Brad Stevens and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge addressed the situation with him. He was also called out by Jaylen Brown, who wondered in January why Irving was singling out the young players for criticism.
“It wasn’t really a pushback,” Brown said. “In reality, I agreed with what Kyrie said. I just thought it was unfair to single out the young guys. We all needed to do better.”
Terry Rozier offered Irving some feedback as well.
“I love Kyrie,” Rozier says. “But there were times this year when I wanted to say to him, ‘Listen, you don’t have reason to stress. You’re Kyrie Irving. I’m the one that has reasons to stress.'”
Both Brown and Rozier had to adjust to reduced playing time this season after playing significant roles in last year’s playoff run. For Rozier, who will be a restricted free agent after the season, it felt like he “went from the passenger seat to the trunk.”
Brown noted that in hindsight, the team could have been a lot better this season.
“Maybe we did a little too much talking in the media, and then we read it, and it separated us in some sense,” he said. “But there’s no bad blood in our locker room. There never has been.”
Kyrie reset his approach to leadership
The Celtics quietly surged as the regular season came to a close. They won six of their last eight games, and MacMullan credits Irving’s new leadership approach — more collaborative, less combative — for that harmony.
The other players told ESPN that the point guard started pulling them aside in the weeks before the playoffs, harping on the importance of each possession in the postseason.
“His positive outlook lately has made a huge difference,” Rozier said.
Irving’s backup pointed to the team’s newfound cohesiveness.
“The energy is great now,” Rozier said. “We’re together. Not like before.”
Irving, who’s taken criticism for the candid quotes that some point to as the source of the team’s early disorder, is focused on finding balance and says he is finished talking.
“I don’t need to show anybody what I’m doing as a leader or as a person or as a basketball player,” he said. “I’m going to miss shots in some games, I’m going to make some shots in games. It’s the ups and downs of a season. I’m not investing in, ‘Oh, this is his team, he needs to do more, he needs to step up.’ It’s just stupid.”
The Celtics’ issues were emblematic of league-wide maladies
The Boston locker room was not alone in struggling with negativity this season. The defending champion Golden State Warriors had well-documented chemistry issues of their own, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver talked about players across the league being “truly unhappy.”
Silver pointed to the jealousy among players, the isolation that leads to loneliness, and the potentially poisonous effects of social media. Irving, according to Rozier, simply removed those apps from his phone to avoid the outside noise.
“Kyrie was the first person who told me, ‘No matter what [players] say, everyone looks,'” Rozier said. “‘And when you look, you are going to see positive things and negative things from people who have never met you.’ That’s why Kyrie deleted all that stuff off his phone — it was bothering him.”
Ainge told ESPN that social media isn’t worth the potential unhappiness.
“I worry they run straight to their cellphones after the game,” Ainge said. “Every time I’m in the training room, I see them glued to their phone, checking to see what people are saying. I don’t understand it.”
Beyond those concerns, Irving spotted defects in the NBA system at large.
“I think this whole business is flawed, by the way the draft is set up, by the way the coaches and the GMs are set up, the way people get fired and traded,” Irving said. “When you think about putting a leather basketball in a rim, and how many other complicated things happen because of that one simple thing, with our families and our lives, you can understand why people are struggling.”
The Celtics have appeared to put those struggles, and the squabbles about playing time and shot selection, aside in the playoffs. Al Horford, the team’s veteran forward, noted the postseason acted like a reset button.
“It’s all about the Celtics now — not about getting paid, or whether it’s a contract year, or whether you’re at the end of the bench.”