It’s not easy to talk to Kyrie Irving these days. He’s seemed defensive, and sour, and tired (rightfully so), in media appearances lately, especially when asked about controversies that have largely been of his own making. As recently as Saturday, he was stirring up contention with his soundbites. But at the postgame press conference following Boston’s 115-96 loss to San Antonio on Sunday night, the first question directed to Irving—after he left the bench with 20 seconds remaining in the game, and then after media access was delayed for an extensive team meeting—was about Rob Gronkowski’s retirement. Irving said he was happy for Gronk. Happy. Remember happy, Boston?
Irving was not the reason the Celtics fell on Sunday, earning their fourth-straight loss. Though he shot like a caffeinated Dion Waiters, going 5-for-17 from the field and 1-for-5 from deep and finishing with just 11 points, he did dish out over half of Boston’s assists (12) in a game where he missed time due to a cut on his finger that required treatment.
The loss can be attributed more to the team’s injury woes. Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams were all sidelined, and Aron Baynes played on a minutes restriction. That lack of post depth allowed LaMarcus Aldridge to work the frontcourt for 48 points—the same number of points as four-fifths of Boston’s starting lineup scored altogether. No Celtic managed to sink more than a single 3-pointer, perhaps mimicking their guests: The Spurs, who attempt the fewest deep shots in the league, somehow finished with more made 3s (eight to Boston’s seven) on far fewer attempts.
If it looked like the entire Celtics squad needed rest, it’s because they did; the team was on the second night of a back-to-back, having fallen 124-117 to Charlotte on Saturday. In fact, the entire TD Garden crowd looked like it needed rest; it’s been an exhausting season to be a Celtics fan. Yet the person who looked the most worn down on Sunday night was Brad Stevens. Not only was his team struggling against the resurgent Spurs, but the night before, Boston conceded an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Hornets, and Irving blamed Stevens’s strategy for the loss.
”We should have probably trapped [Kemba Walker] more like every other team does in the league but we didn’t. He torches us every time we play them so it’s no surprise,” Irving said after the game. He had a point; Walker scored 18 points in the fourth quarter during a 30-5 Hornets run.
Saturday wasn’t the first time this season that Boston lost a game it shouldn’t have, nor was Sunday the first time the team has had to deal with the aftermath of Irving allocating blame. “The Kyrie News Cycle is its own industry at this point,” The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote earlier this month. “The Celtics lose a game, Irving gives a terse and meta-commentary on the state of the media, basketball, and the universe, questioning the motivations of those asking him questions.” While Irving’s away-from-the-court alter ego (Uncle Drew aside) is generally an abstract character who floats theories and questions science and fact, during these postgame pressers he’s direct. He’s certain. When reporters approach after a loss, Irving doesn’t wonder what’s wrong with the team. He explicitly tells us. And oftentimes, like with his comments on Saturday, it’s hard to disagree with his assessment, even if the very public nature of his delivery is an overall detriment to the team.
After a loss to the Rockets in December, Irving essentially called out his teammates for being selfish: “I think the next step for us is just knowing that there are just other opportunities for you to be a basketball player other than having the ball in your hands,” Irving said. “You don’t need the ball to just dribble, dribble and shoot a fadeaway every single time. You can cut backdoor, you can screen for a teammate. There are other things to help an offense flourish rather than just standing out on the perimeter.”
Just dribble, dribble, and shoot a fadeaway has been Jayson Tatum’s blueprint for most of the season, and in the aftermath it seemed obvious that the sophomore was Irving’s intended target; the following game, Tatum responded with a then-season-high five assists. The Celtics also won five of their next six games.
Then in January, following a loss to the Magic, Irving called out all of the “young guys,” likely meaning Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart, after he didn’t receive the final shot: “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team,” Irving said. That led Brown to respond, telling reporters that “It’s not the young guys’ or old guys’ fault—it’s everybody,” and that the Celtics “can’t point fingers.” It seemed like the rift that had been forming in Boston may finally doom the season, but the team ending up winning 10 of its next 12.
That’s not to say Irving’s leadership tactics work. Even when the team has been united this season, it hasn’t stayed that way for long. After the post-Rockets run, Boston lost three straight. And recently, the reverse—the Celtics publicly reconciling then falling apart—has happened: Earlier this month, Irving told reporters that he spent a cross-country plane ride speaking with Stevens and apologizing to his teammates for how he’s handled things this season. After that, grievances having been literally aired, Boston beat Golden State triumphantly, 128-95, and won four of its next five, only to settle into the exact losing wave they’re riding now—and for Irving to return to the blame game.
Irving’s shade isn’t wrong, but it isn’t constructive, either, as evidenced by yet another loss and another superstar opponent in Aldridge going off on the team. Still, Irving’s sideways comments are the one consistency Boston has had this season. Despite the Celtics managing to briefly find success after some of Irving’s most egregious postgame moments, the theme of their season has revolved around the lack of togetherness he talks about—and perpetuates—after games.