Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving walked off the TD Garden parquet ahead of the final buzzer of Monday night’s disheartening defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks. With his team trailing by double-digits, about to drop Game 4 of a second-round playoff series, Irving headed to the locker room before any of his teammates.
The early exit is by no means an isolated incident, as Irving has also walked off the court prior to the final buzzer in a few regular-season games this year. But the fact that it’s happened before doesn’t necessarily diminish its significance.
So, what was going through his mind this time around?
“The game was over,” Irving said bluntly after the 12-point loss.
That, it was.
Down 1-3 in their second-round playoff series, the Celtics are now on the brink of elimination, with more than just their postseason hopes on the line. Monday night’s home game could be the last for Irving in a green-and-white uniform. The 27-year-old is set to hit free agency this offseason, and, despite his preseason announcement that he plans to re-sign, nothing is set in stone for the Celtics.
Some thoughts on where things stand…
1. ‘Playoff Kyrie’ has left a lot to be desired this series.
In the past three games — all Celtics losses — Irving has shot a combined 19 for 62 from the field (30.6 percent) and 4 for 20 from behind the arc (20 percent). Not only are the shots not falling, but the selection has also been poor. As Boston’s primary ball-handler, Irving often succumbs to the team’s default mode when things aren’t going well: “hero ball.”
If there’s anyone on this team who can be a hero, however, Irving is certainly the obvious choice. In 52 playoff games alongside LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers, he dropped 30 or more points on 12 occasions. During that span, he shot 46.5 percent from the floor and 41.5 percent from downtown. Most memorably, in the final minute of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, he drilled a clutch three-pointer over Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry to help lift the Cavs to their first-ever championship.
But Irving’s shooting numbers this postseason are the worst of his career. His performances have been a far cry from the ‘Playoff Kyrie’ of the past. He can’t seem to get hot, and can’t seem to take over games when the Celtics could desperately use his shot-making ability. In Game 4, for example, Irving was held without a made field goal from the 2-minute, 56-second mark in the second quarter to the 5-minute, 48-second mark in the fourth. The Celtics’ one-point lead became a nine-point deficit during those 20 minutes.
“I missed shots,” Irving said after the game. “Shots just didn’t go in.”
The problems aren’t only on the offensive end. Though Irving stepped up his game defensively during the regular season — drawing 13 charges and being more active in general — his effort has seemingly waned during the postseason.
In Game 4, Irving picked up five fouls, he got beat on fast breaks, and he ended up getting switched on Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is never going to be a favorable matchup, far too often. He did play all 24 minutes of the second half, so it’s possible he was feeling fatigued, but his defense on the possession below essentially cemented the Celtics’ fate.
“When the ball doesn’t go in the rim, that energy of the basketball can translate to the other end as well,” Irving said. “That’s just basketball 101. That’s just a choice we have to make, just being more communicative. It’s a natural thing as an individual when you’re shots aren’t going in to be thinking about that shot as you go down to the defensive position. It can take you out mentally.”
2. His confidence isn’t faltering — in the team and in himself.
After shooting 7 for 22 in Game 4, three days after he shot 8 for 22 in Game 3, Irving proclaimed he should have recorded even more attempts, which seems like an interesting strategy in light of his shooting struggles. But Irving has never lacked confidence, having reminded the media multiple times this season that he can get his shot any time he wants.
“For me, 22 shots, I should have shot 30,” he said Monday. “I’m that great of a shooter.”
Irving has acknowledged throughout the year, and did once more on Monday, that there’s a delicate balance of getting his own shot versus getting his teammates involved. While he may not have yet struck that balance enough times this series, he insists his confidence level in the team is “unwavering” moving forward.
3. Time is running out.
Here’s a sampling of quotes from Irving this year:
Feb. 27, after the Celtics lost their fourth straight game since the All-Star Break: “I can’t wait for all this other B.S. about the regular season [to be over] … and talking over and over and over again about what we can to keep getting better in the regular season. I just want to be at the highest level playing. That’s what I’m here for.”
March 9, after the Celtics won their third straight game during their California road trip: “The stuff that happens in the regular season, people barely remember it. When it comes to the playoffs, that’s when you want to be playing your best basketball.”
March 24, after another four-game losing streak: “There’s light at the end of all this. That’s probably where my patience will always lie, knowing that something’s beyond this. This challenge is happening for a reason, and I got to believe in that.”
After preaching all year long that the playoff results are what really matter, Irving is now just a loss away from elimination. He’s had plenty of opportunities to put his stamp on each of the past three games, yet the Celtics are never able to make a statement when they’re ahead.
Eleven teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, although just three have done so by winning on the road twice. Irving was a member of one of those teams — the 2016 Cavs — if that’s any reassurance he may be able to turn it on in Games 5-7.
4. It’s not all his fault.
Although Irving is clearly at the center, and perhaps the easy scapegoat, of the Celtics’ woes — given his superstar status, his comments to the media, and his upcoming free agency — he’s not the only one who has been disappointing this postseason.
Boston’s bench combined to shoot 3 for 17 in Game 4 and 4 for 17 in Game 3. The Celtics reserves finished with just 23 points between the two games. Led by veteran point guard George Hill and Arlington native Pat Connaughton, Milwaukee’s bench, on the other hand, has kept their team afloat. The Bucks reserves registered 42 points in Game 3 and 32 in Game 4.
After a promising finish to the regular season, forward Gordon Hayward has ultimately been a non-factor in the postseason. Staying passive off the bench, he scored just two points in 27 minutes in Game 4 and is shooting 4-for-18 over the past three games. The Celtics could definitely use an offensive spark from him, as they went 13-4 in regular-season games when he scored more than 15 points and 25-4 when he shot better than 50 percent from the field.