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It’s early October and the Boston crowd cheers wildly for Kyrie Irving. Fans chant his name.
But he’s not dribbling around defenders or draining clutch jumpers. Actually, he’s not even in uniform. He’s holding a microphone and talking to a group of Celtics season-ticket holders.
He’s just been asked if he’d like to see his No. 11 hanging in the TD Garden rafters. And he answers, "If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here."
But that was back in early October, back when the Celtics were considered the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, back before the Celtics’ up-and-down performance and chemistry issues raised questions about Irving’s style of play and his leadership. Some critics have said Irving's electrifying play sometimes doesn’t complement what his teammates bring to the parquet.
So, here we are: The Celtics enter the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the East with a first-round match-up against the Indiana Pacers. They remain a disappointing, sometimes-infuriating mix of talent that’s never quite clicked on the court. And Irving’s long-term commitment to the Celtics appears again in doubt.
But despite the team under-performing during the regular season, Irving is optimistic about the playoffs.
“I don’t get frustrated by this stuff anymore,” he told reporters in February. “It’s just part of the regular season. In the playoffs, when you can plan for a team, prepare for a team, I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.”
Throughout the postseason — as long as it lasts for the Celtics — no player will be more scrutinized than their All-Star point guard. For better or worse, as Irving goes, so go the Celtics.
"I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.”Kyrie Irving, in February
And if you listen to the critics, it’s never enough for Irving to be the best player on the team. On and off the court, he’s got to lead in a way that inspires team unity and trust and avoids embarrassing losses.
Consider what happened in February: The Celtics posted a 5-6 record, including a four-game losing streak after the All-Star Break. Earlier in the month, against the LA Clippers, they blew a 28-point first half lead.
During the regular season, media criticism left Irving sounding reflective and a lot different than he did in October with the season-ticket holders.
"I didn't really come into this game to be cameras in my face, be famous, be a celebrity, whatever embodies that; it's a little hard for me,” Irving said in early March. “I wanted those things when I was younger, but now, at this point in my career, I just want to play basketball at a very high level. And the distractions that come from the team sometimes can be overwhelming. And I’m human.”
Now that it’s April, something of a fresh start awaits with the playoffs. And Irving’s not the only one who believes the Celtics can put together a strong postseason run. They’re considered a dangerous team to face in a series.
The biggest reason for that is Irving.
It will be the first time he’s played for the Celtics in the postseason. Last year, he missed the team’s thrilling run to the Eastern Conference Finals because of knee surgery.
He knows the Celtics’ first-round match-up with the Pacers, which begins Sunday, offers a chance to put the regular season behind him and the rest of the team.
“I can’t wait for all this other BS about the regular season, and keep getting better, and talking over and over and over again about what we can do to keep getting better in the regular season,” said Irving. “I just want to be at the highest level playing. I mean that’s what I’m here for.
When Kyrie Irving is playing at his highest level, he’s unstoppable, creative and clutch. He’s the best dribbler in the NBA. No debate.
Irving finished the regular season averaging team highs with 23.8 points per game and a career high 6.9 assists.
But those numbers only hint at what he can do on the court — which is pretty much whatever he wants to do.
Of course, all the attention-grabbing play leaves Irving a target — not only of critics, but of teams around the league. Recently, there’s been talk of the LA Lakers pursuing Irving in free agency, reuniting Irving and LeBron James.
And that raises the playoff stakes for the Celtics.
If they come together and realize the potential everyone thought they had at the start of the season and make a deep playoff run, then it might convince Irving to stick with his original plan and stay in Boston. If not, then this might be the first and last time fans see Irving in the postseason in a Celtics uniform.
This segment aired on April 12, 2019.
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