A white towel wrapped around his neck, a victorious Kyrie Irving slapped hands with teammates as he walked onto the TD Garden floor. At midcourt, a camera caught him planting his left foot on the head of the Celtics’ leprechaun logo, pivoting to his right, and defiantly dragging his foot across the leprechaun’s face before heading for the tunnel.
Irving had earned that moment, given the abuse he had taken from the crowd across two hostile nights. What he didn’t earn was the water bottle thrown at him on his way to the locker room, apparently hurled by a moron in a Kevin Garnett jersey, a fan last seen in handcuffs being escorted out of the building by police.
“As a black man playing in the NBA,” Irving said, “dealing with a lot of this stuff is fairly difficult because you never know what can happen.”
Irving had talked about this behavior ahead of his return to Boston. He warned of belligerence and racism, or subtle racism, while others argued that the crowd reaction would be strictly tied to his broken promise to re-sign with the Celtics. Either way, there is no doubt that fans throughout the playoffs, not just in Boston, have acted repulsively toward players.
“Just treating people like they’re in a human zoo,” Irving said.
These fans shouldn’t just be banned from NBA arenas for life; they should be prosecuted for putting people in danger in a public setting, and creating an atmosphere that could inspire another “Malice in the Palace” riot like the one that went down in 2004.
Irving said he just wanted to move on and get home to his family after Brooklyn’s 141-126 victory gave the Nets a 3-1 series lead, and what a damn, crying shame that was, too. He shouldn’t have to move on from one of the greatest performances of his career. He blitzed his former team with 39 points and 11 rebounds, putting on a clinic in attack-mode basketball.
Strange how this holiday weekend homecoming worked out. Even though he was gesturing at the crowd to bring more noise, Irving seemed rattled in Game 3 in front of fewer than 5,000 fans. And yet with more than 17,000 fans in the house for Game 4, Brooklyn’s point guard-turned-shooting guard came across as focus and inspired … at least until that flying bottle nearly hit him in the head.
The perpetrator couldn’t steal all of Irving’s joy, and couldn’t erase the result’s enduring message: This is why you hire Kyrie Irving to play basketball for your team. So much time is spent breaking down his flaws as a teammate, and the holes in his approach, that it’s easy to forget the reasons we cared about him in the first place.
Irving is, as Steve Nash calls him, an all-world player. The same Boston fans who hated on him used to cheer for him, and hope he could someday hang championship banner No. 18.
The relationship unraveled, but the talent remained intact. Irving arrived in Brooklyn as a point guard who proved that he could not only win a championship (albeit with an all-time great at his side), but that he could also win a championship by sinking the biggest of Game 7 shots. Sometimes high-maintenance players are worth the maintenance.
Irving had 12 points at the end of the first quarter, 23 at the half, and 31 points and nine rebounds after three quarters Sunday.
“When Ky’s aggressive like that,” said James Harden, good for an absurd 18 assists, “nobody can guard him.”
In the middle of the third, Irving showed off the athleticism he rarely shows — swooping in for a put-back dunk off a Blake Griffin miss. Near the end of that quarter, he showed off some postseason competitiveness you like to see — refusing to help an opponent (Grant Williams) whose outstretched hands signaled that he expected to be lifted off the floor. Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Red Auerbach would have approved.
In the game’s closing minutes, Irving swooped in again to tap in a Harden miss off the glass with his left hand. He was a whirling dervish for 41 minutes, and when he was done for the night, Irving stood with Kevin Durant near the bench. Durant had scored 42. The two of them were pointing at a stat sheet like giddy high school kids.
“I had a good feeling about him tonight,” Nash said of Irving, “and he was outstanding. I just loved his will.”
Nash gave his man a warm hug before he headed for the tunnel. Then came the bottle, and the commotion, and the condemnation. Now you know why Kyrie Irving felt the way he did about his return to Boston.
And now you remember why the Celtics traded for him in the first place.