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Kyrie, Here Now

A regular season full of “B.S.” (Irving’s word) is finally behind Boston. Can Kyrie and the Celtics make quick work of the Indiana Pacers and get back to the top of the East?

Ringer illustration

In the ’60s, a young Massachusetts native turned Stanford and Harvard psychology professor was fired from the latter university for dosing undergrads with LSD. Richard Alpert soured on psilocybin, went on a spiritual journey to India, began calling himself Ram Dass, and came home preaching the benefits of yoga, meditation, and what we’d today call mindfulness. In 2018, British fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner took inspiration from Dass’s 1971 book Be Here Now and applied it to her new collection. In 2019, Kyrie Irving, a 27-year-old born in Melbourne, Australia, raised in New Jersey, and proofed as a professional in Cleveland and Boston, wore a T-shirt from the British designer with the controversial former professor’s philosophical musings emblazoned on it on national TV.

Now, it can be a mug’s game to read too much into NBA players’ off-court attire. Just ask Anthony Davis, who to the disappointment of Porky Pig fans everywhere swears he didn’t pick his latest headline-making outfit out himself.

But because of Irving’s galaxy-brain public persona, it’s hard to resist reading the tea leaves behind his couture choices. The Celtics guard showed up to Sunday’s Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers wearing a Wales Bonner T-shirt (price: 150 pounds), and he changed back into it before he hopped onto the postgame podium at TD Garden to discuss Boston’s 84-74 victory. Black with red lettering, the shirt boasts several Dass bons mots from Be Here Now, including “But: You can’t hustle it. You can’t make-believe you’re calm when you’re not. It never works. Everybody knows. You know. It’s horrible” and “You must center inside yourself. And: Whatever your dance is, you’re doing it from that place.”

It’s entirely possible that, like Davis, Irving did not choose this T-shirt specifically for this particular day, this particular game. Given how we’ve gotten here, though, it seems more likely the shirt was chosen for a reason. Reporters asked Jayson Tatum about nerves, and the 21-year-old relayed that Kyrie had confessed to feeling them pregame. What—Kyrie, nervous? The Finals Game 7 dagger thrower, the mysterious muser, the trade requester, the own-team wanter feeling butterflies before a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers?

Wonder of wonders. But then, it has taken an awful lot for Irving to be here, now.

It was probably just a coincidence. There’s no way Irving waited until Tiger had conquered Augusta and legions of sports fans flipped over to Game 1 of Celtics-Pacers before kicking it into gear. But it’s still hard to dismiss out of hand.

As large groups of fans in TD Garden watched golf on the concourse, the Celtics struggled against Nate McMillan’s feisty Pacers. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said postgame that the visitors got up in the hosts’ grills early, forcing tough shots and some questionable choices. That’s why the Pacers were out in front by as many as 11 at one point, and why at the half the Celtics had only one scorer in double digits and were shooting a robust 32.5 percent.

Still, the Celtics star point guard does love a big stage; he’s talked again and again this season about just wanting to get to the postseason. He’s a champion, someone who’s hit a game-winner in Game 7 of the Finals against one of the best teams of all time. And he’s not shy about sharing that experience, or about sharing that the rest of his teammates don’t have it—something that has, at times, caused a good deal of friction.

Boston started this campaign with sky-high expectations, given the healthy returns of Irving and Gordon Hayward from season-ending injuries and the expected growth from youngins like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier who led a push to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2017-18. It’s safe to say those expectations have not been realized, and instead there has been “a lot of bullshit” around Kyrie and Co. Those are Irving’s words, spoken in the run-up to the postseason and in reference, he was sure to add, to himself and not his teammates.

There has indeed been a lot of bullshit in Boston this season, much of it tied to the team’s star. In short, there was: Kyrie’s commitment in the preseason to re-sign with Boston; the collective underachievement; Kyrie’s seeming decommitment; the famous lip-reading; and yet more collective underachievement. A team many predicted would be the best in the East finished a distant fourth; its seeming abundance of riches has richly disappointed.

Stevens is no longer the people’s president. Tatum, beguiled by the midrange, isn’t the superstar in the making he seemed 12 months ago. Al Horford is still vanilla—damn good, but not particularly exciting or novel. And Kyrie, the perfect wingman for the best player of his generation before he decided that he wanted to do it all on his own, has had growing pains.

Irving’s numbers have been stellar this season: averages of 23.8 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.0 rebounds a game—the latter two representing career highs. His leadership has been … questionable, at least from an outside-the-room, analyzing-quotes-from-10,000-feet level.

“I think it’s harder to be a leader than people realize,” former Celtics forward and current team TV analyst Brian Scalabrine says in an interview Tuesday. “Especially in today’s generation, where everyone is trying to be the greatest thing, and everyone believes that they should be as good as the next guy. There are levels to the game, and [Kyrie is] clearly, from a basketball standpoint, on a whole other planet when it comes to how good he is. So there are times when that holds weight. ...

“Sometimes guys listen to that. Sometimes guys don’t listen to that. ... Sometimes people scrutinize what he says, and they think, ‘Well, he’s gotta look himself in the mirror when it comes to the things he’s saying.’”

While much of the analysis of the apparent dysfunction in the Celtics locker room has focused on youth—both Kyrie’s and his contemporaries’—Scalabrine says he thinks it’s more about human nature.

“I’m sure we all can understand people saying, ‘Hey man, we did it without you last year.’ But I know these guys and they’re all really smart, and they know the game,” he says. “They have to understand that Kyrie’s on another level, and [that] being a couple of possessions from the NBA Finals is a big difference from winning it all. He’s trying to emphasize that, since he has been through the trenches.”

Finally back in the spotlight he seems to so adore, Irving got off to a spotty start in the Celtics’ first playoff game: He clanged 70 percent of his shots in the first half, hitting the break with seven points on 10 shots; the C’s trailed by seven. Then the third started, and everything flipped.

The Celtics ratcheted up their defense, and suddenly shots that had been falling for the Pacers started rimming out. Brown got free for a dunk off a feed from Irving, then Horford scored five straight points to tie the game at 45. Irving crossed up Bojan Bogdanovic and hit a 19-footer on the Celtics’ next possession, and they never trailed again. He’d score six more in the period and add an assist on a Marcus Morris 3-pointer, as Boston raced out to a lead as large as 22. When the buzzer sounded, he had a respectable 20-7-5 line.

Maybe the most impactful play Irving made Sunday, though, was a sprawling attempt to pick off a loose ball in front of the Celtics bench. The referees whistled the scrum dead and gave the ball to Indy, but Irving’s teammates clearly appreciated the hustle, the willingness to hurtle his body—the very same that betrayed him last season, costing him a playoff run by requiring a pair of knee procedures—across the court for a 50-50 ball.

That aggression is something Scalabrine looks for from Irving, and when he sees it good things tend to follow for the team.

“When he plays fast, aggressive, the team follows his lead,” he says. “And when he plays a little bit slower and more deliberate, the team follows his lead.”

Ram Dass is 88 years old and uses a wheelchair after a stroke, but he’s still part of the community he created. And he occasionally watches a little NBA.

Mitchell Markus, the executive director of Dass’s Love Serve Remember Foundation and a Golden State Warriors fan—“Don’t know how that happened last nite??” he writes in an email Tuesday—says the two will sometimes watch a little basketball when they’re together in Dass’s home in Maui.

“The fact that Kyrie wore that shirt is pretty amazing,” Markus wrote, “and [it’s] great to see anyone reflecting the tenets of Being Here Now.”

In the moments after Game 1, Irving certainly seemed in buoyant spirits. When a reporter asked him about fighting over all the screens Indy set on him on defense, he smiled and said that while he appreciated the compliment, he definitely didn’t go over all the screens. In another response he joked about the team’s low point total, the first time all season they’ve won a game after failing to break 100.

“We understand the position that we’re in,” Irving said. “There’s no time to really [dwell] on the mistakes that happened in the first half. At this point, it’s really just what’s the next thing we can [do to] impact the game? What’s the next thing that we gotta do to be more locked in?

“And when you have that type of mentality, then it’s no time to be fixated on all the mistakes. … To be in a dogfight like that, and, I don’t know, did we score 90 points? No. I’ve been in a few playoff games where I’ve been on both ends, but that’s where the really gritty individuals make their mark.”

And while Kyrie was talking specifically about Game 1, he might as well have been talking about all of it, everything that went into the Celtics being where they are right now.