By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- The Boston Celtics. The Brooklyn Nets. Kyrie Irving.
That's just a collection of proper nouns. It doesn't really tell a story. Yet ... it kind of does.
And with the Celtics and Nets prepping to square off in the NBA's most interesting first-round playoff series, the history of Kyrie and the Celtics is sure to come up a time or two in the coming days and weeks. Over time, some of that history has been clouded, because frankly, there's a lot of it. So help sort it all out -- or, most of it, hopefully -- here's a recap.
AUGUST 2017: THE TRADE
Isaiah Thomas basically sacrificed his career by playing through a serious hip injury in the 2017 playoffs. He was also playing amid a personal tragedy that postseason, after his sister died in a car crash. He had already been a fan favorite to that point, and he was even more beloved by Boston after all of that.
And yet ... Danny Ainge went ahead and traded him away the following summer.
Granted, it was the right move from a basketball standpoint, as Thomas' hip problems meant he'd never be the same player. Still, for Ainge to move a player with that kind of standing among Boston basketball fans, he'd have to be doing it for a certified superstar.
Of course, he did exactly that by acquiring Kyrie Irving, just a year removed from his championship season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now paired up with another All-Star in Gordon Hayward, the title expectations were set as soon as Kyrie showed up in Boston.
Those expectations were altered significantly when Hayward broke his ankle on opening night, and they dropped even lower when Irving's season ended early with a knee injury. (Irving also incurred a $25,000 fine in his third game with the team for instructing a Philadelphia fan to ... do something obscene.)
GAME 7 VS. THE CAVS
Irving's first season in Boston ended in early March, forcing him to be a spectator for the final 15 games of the regular season. Without him, though, the Celtics went on an improbable postseason run, taking a 3-2 series lead over LeBron James and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics dropped Game 6 in Cleveland, setting up a Game 7 at home, with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line.
Irving couldn't play, obviously. But he still could have shown up. He didn't do that.
Instead of being on the bench as his new team battled his old team, Irving was in New Jersey, recovering from surgery to fix his ... deviated septum.
At the time, his absence was brushed off and downplayed, because it's not as if he really could have helped the team win the game. Yet in retrospect, failing to even show up when your team is playing in Game 7 of the conference finals? That's a red flag if there ever was one.
OCTOBER 2018: THE PROMISE
Essentially, the entire saga of Kyrie and the city of Boston hinges on this moment. Before the 2018-19 season, at a season-ticket holder event at the TD Garden, Irving made a proclamation to the fans in attendance. Even though the wacky NBA rules prevented the Celtics from signing Irving until after the season, the superstar grabbed a microphone and stated that he fully intended to be in Boston for the long term.
"If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here," he said.
Irving took things a step further in his dedication to the Celtics by making a whole commercial about how he wanted his No. 11 to hang in the rafters forever in Boston.
Just 26 years old at the time, Irving let it be known that he was going to be a foundational player for the Celtics' future.
FEBRUARY 2019: THE MEETING
After making those promises, the 2018-19 season didn't go as Irving planned. He didn't love being the veteran leader, to the point where he "had to call Bron." When asked in early February if he still intended to stay with the Celtics beyond the season, he told reporters, "I don't owe anybody s---" and "ask me July 1st."
That set the stage for a hallway interaction with Kevin Durant at the All-Star Game. Irving appeared to be selling Durant on Brooklyn, which had two max slots to sign two max players.
Irving was then asked about that moment, and he wagged his finger at the media.
"What I do with my life is my business, so it's none of yours, it's none of anybody's. It's not anybody's business," Irving said in a scolding tone. "It's a video of me and one of my best friends talking. And then it turns out to be a dissection of a free-agency meeting? Do you get that? Like, do you get that? And then I'm asked questions about that? That's what disconnects me from all that s---."
Irving added: "Like, it's just crazy. This is the stuff that just doesn't make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league even more by doing bulls--- like that, of just fictitious putting things on what we're talking about. It's just, it's crazy. I guess that's what you wanted, huh?"
Despite Irving's protests ... Durant later confirmed that the meeting at the All-Star Game was exactly what it looked like.
"The All-Star game video where they caught us in the hallway. That's when it was solidified that we were going somewhere," Durant said in 2020. "They didn't know for a fact where it was, but it was somewhere."
A book released in 2021 also noted that Durant and Irving had spent time together in January of 2019 discussing their forming of a new super team.
MAY 2019: THE END
Kyrie Irving's performance with Cleveland in the 2016 playoffs was one of the biggest selling points on the Celtics acquiring him. Yet when he finally got the chance to play in the postseason for Boston, he was a dud.
He was good in the first-round sweep of the Pacers, but in the second round against Milwaukee, he shot just 35.6 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from 3-point range. His averages -- 20.4 points, 6.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds per game -- looked good enough, but he shot a miserable 4-for-18 from the field in a Game 2 loss, and he ended the series with a dreadful 6-for-21 shooting night, going 1-for-7 from 3-point range. He was a minus-21 and a minus-25 in those games, respectively.
After the Celtics were eliminated in five games, Irving was asked if he had ever been in such an ugly shooting slump. His answer was a bit baffling.
"Yeah, who cares? Who cares?" he said. "The expectations on me are going to be sky-high, and I try to utilize [the Bucks'] aggression against them and still put my teammates in great positions while still being aggressive. I'm trying to do it all. So, for me, the 22 shots, you know, I should've shot 30. I'm that great of a shooter."
Irving unsurprisingly announced after that season that he'd be going "home" to Brooklyn. At that point, Celtics fans weren't overly broken up about his departure, considering how messy that 2018-19 season was for the organization.
In line with that, Irving's returns to Boston have been appropriately messy.
Irving missed the Nets' first trip to Boston in the fall of 2019 due to injury, but Celtics fans made sure to issue several anti-Kyrie chants throughout the night. Those led to Irving posting a lengthy rant via Instagram story in which he once again wagged his finger -- this time at fans -- for not seeing real life for what it is. When Irving didn't play in March 2020 game between the Celtics and Nets, though, Boston fans once again chanted "Where is Kyrie?"
Kyrie ended up missing all three games between Brooklyn and Boston in his first season with the Nets, and when he finally did play in Boston in the 2020-21 preseason, he did so in an empty arena, due to COVID protocols. When he did arrive, he burned sage on the court before the game in order to "cleanse the energy" within the building.
He claimed he was going to do it before every game possible, but funny enough, footage of him burning sage in other arenas never has surfaced. (He did burn some sage in the locker room before a game in Cleveland -- another one of his former NBA homes -- and it apparently "annoyed" teammate James Harden.)
Irving played in another empty-arena game in Boston in April of 2021, but when the Nets and Celtics were paired up in the postseason, it meant that Kyrie would be playing in front of Boston fans for the first time. Before making that appearance, Irving said that he hoped that "subtle racism" wouldn't lead to fans disrespecting him.
"Hopefully we can just keep it strictly basketball, you know there's no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling s–t from the crowd," Irving said.
The fans certainly did boo when Irving took the floor for Game 3 of that series in Boston, and he shot just 6-for-17 (35.3 percent) in the Nets' loss.
He was a whole lot better in Game 4, scoring 39 points while bringing down 11 rebounds. After that game, a fan crossed the line by throwing a water bottle at Irving as he made his way off the court. That fan was arrested, and pretty much everybody disapproved of the action, which only added to the complicated headaches involved with this particular relationship.
In that same game, Irving made it a point to walk to midcourt, stomp on the face of Lucky the Leprechaun, and rub his foot across the Celtics' logo. While stepping on a painted leprechaun is not the world's most grievous offense, the action indicated that Irving clearly harbors some level of ill will toward the organization or the city -- or both.
This past season, Kyrie Irving did not play a whole lot of basketball, for a variety of reasons. So he only played against Boston once. That was a memorable game, too, as the fans remained hot and bothered at Kyrie, eventually chanting "Kyrie Sucks" so aggressively to the point where Jayson Tatum had to signal to the home crowd to tone things down.
The Celtics won that game, thanks to Tatum's 54 points and Jaylen Brown's 21. Afterwards, Irving was asked about the fan reaction.
"I know it's going to be like that the rest of my career coming in here. It's like the scorned girlfriend who wants an explanation on why I left, but still hoping for a text back," he answered. "I'm just like, it was fun while it lasted."
Clearly, Irving doesn't really understand why Boston fans might not be in love with him. And just about every time he speaks on the matter, he seems to only add to the reasons that Celtics fans will forever hold a certain level of disdain for him.
All of which is leading up to now. The roles have reversed from a year ago, as the Celtics are the No. 2 seed, and the Nets are the No. 7 seed after winning their play-in game. But the Nets -- with Kyrie and KD -- are a lot better than their 44-38 record would indicate.
The Celtics may well go out and win this series en route to a long playoff run. The Nets may just as easily assert their superstar dominance and crush Boston's title hopes very early.
Whichever way it goes, it does feel inevitable that another chapter or two will be added to the ongoing soap opera involving Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics.
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