Breakups are messy. Intimacy is difficult, and allowing someone into your life means letting them know about you—who you are, where you like to catch your passes, and when you need help on defense.
Boston tried to make things work with Kyrie Irving, whom they rescued from a messy breakup of his own in Cleveland. They built a system around his unique scoring talents, flanking him on the wings with offensive options like Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward and defensive stalwarts like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. But emotions ran high at the TD Garden, and after a year of feuding with [checks notes] everyone even remotely associated with the franchise, Kyrie bolted this summer, signing a four-year, $136 million contract with Brooklyn.
The Celtics were happy with this for sure. Totally mutual breakup. They found a new man in former Charlotte Hornets star Kemba Walker, fresh off his first third-team All-NBA appearance and a career-high 25.6 points per game. Sure, he may not have provided the same kind of offensive ceiling Irving delivered, but what he lacked in scoring prowess, he more than made up for in fit and intangible benefits. Would Walker espouse beliefs on the two-dimensionality of the planet and openly rag on his teammates? Probably not. And after a trip to the conference finals without Irving two springs ago, and a loss in the semifinals with him last season, it stood to reason that maybe less would be more; that Walker and his three Team USA teammates could more than make up for Irving’s absence in a competitive East.
It’s been only one game, but the Celtics might want to stay off of their ex’s Instagram. While Walker floundered in a 107-93 beatdown by the 76ers in Philadelphia, Irving went off at the Barclays Center, scoring 50 on 17-of-33 shooting in a 127-126 overtime loss to the Timberwolves. It’s the third most he’s scored in his nine-year career and his highest output since March 2015. Irving did it all for Brooklyn, cashing in seven of his 14 attempts from beyond the arc and nine of his 10 tries from the stripe, while adding eight rebounds, seven assists, and a block.
Maybe his only misstep of the evening came on the game’s final possession. Irving has been many things in his career, but none more defining than a clutch shooter. The Duke product has been stealing games late since his first years in the league, and it’s likely the play he’ll be most remembered for at the end of his career will be his 3 over Stephen Curry with under a minute remaining in Game 7 to ice the 2016 NBA Finals (never forget that the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead).
On Wednesday, Irving collected the ball near midcourt with about 15 seconds left and the game on the line. He didn’t motion to his teammates or call a play. He stood 30 feet from the rim, down one, and idled before attempting to take Wolves sophomore Josh Okogie off the dribble. He cut right and spun left, only to lose his footing and the ball. He recovered at the stripe with fewer than two ticks left and fired, but the shot wouldn’t fall. A near-perfect night, capped by a devastating miss.
And yet, Irving’s performance likely still would’ve tickled even the coldest of Celtics fans. Walker struggled against an admittedly impressive Philadelphia defense. Early on, he looked strong, catching rookie defensive stalwart Matisse Thybulle flat-footed on a drive midway through the second quarter.
Kemba Walker giving Thybulle his Welcome To The NBA moment pic.twitter.com/sjZo3tuWby— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) October 24, 2019
But Thybulle would have his revenge, blocking Walker from behind with under a minute remaining in the third. Walker scored 10 points in the first half on 3-of-9 shooting. He scored just two points the remainder of the contest, finishing 4-of-18 from the floor.
It’s too early to declare that the Celtics lost the breakup, or that they’ll end the year thinking they’d have been better off with Irving in the fold; both guards lost their debut contests with their new teams. It’s not too early, however, to admit that Walker, while immensely talented, doesn’t bring the same offensive dynamism Irving does when he steps on the floor. Irving has scored 12 or fewer points 63 times in his career (and just nine times in 127 games in Boston). Walker has done it 131 times. There will be nights when Walker looks every bit as impressive as Irving ever did offensively. And then there will be nights like this, when he clanks more than twice the amount that he sinks, while Irving fills it up just a few hours away.
Boston is still an Eastern Conference contender, and it’s just one game into the Walker era. The Celtics are just experiencing what all of us have: post-breakup envy. For their sakes, let’s hope it doesn’t last.