By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This wasn’t supposed to happen. After pushing LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the wire last year in the Eastern Conference finals, the Celtics were supposed to cruise this year, getting a healthy Kyrie Irving back on the court and welcoming back a recovering-but-still-effective Gordon Hayward to the floor. In a league where talent almost always wins out, an NBA Finals featuring the Celtics-Warriors was a fait accompli.
Alas, this is very much happening. The Celtics are unraveling, getting outclassed by the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo has made it clear who is the biggest superstar in this series. Mike Budenholzer is showing who is the best coach in this series. The Celtics now stand just 48 minutes away from the end of their season, needing an unlikely three-game winning streak against a Bucks team that’s now beaten Boston in five of their last seven meetings.
Kyrie Irving’s season — and, perhaps, his Celtics career — is ending with a disappointing fizzle.
“Yeah, who cares? Who cares?” Irving said Monday night when asked if he’s ever been mired in a shooting slump as bad as his current run (19-for-62) over the last three games. “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.”
Not many folks who watched Monday night’s Game 4 in Boston came away with the conclusion that Irving should have taken eight more shots. Kyrie Irving, as we now know, is not most folks.
To be fair, Irving has shown what he’s capable of doing from the field. He shot over 57 percent from the field in Game 1. He shot 15-for-26 in a Game 2 win over the Pacers. There had been signs that “Playoff Kyrie” was awakening, that all of those midseason promises and prognostications about how he and the Celtics would be fine once the playoffs began “because I’m here” would come true, and the belief that the Celtics would finally find a rhythm come April and May would prove prescient. There was some buzz. Some legitimate excitement. Some budding belief that after a trying 82 games, perhaps the Celtics really could make this happen.
Instead, the playoff Celtics look like the regular-season Celtics. And “Playoff Kyrie” looks worse than regular-season Kyrie.
And though the Celtics are still alive in this postseason, three straight losses has a lot of people looking to the future. Instead of talk about how and why the Celtics can live in harmony for many years to come, commentary like the following message from Jalen Rose is going out on ESPN.
“They used to be a pace-and-space team, where the ball and the movement dictated who got the shot,” Rose said of the Celtics on First Take. “Kyrie Irving is a ball-dominant, isolation type of player. They used to be a player where Al Horford, their center, led them in assists. OK? That was their style. Now they’ve chosen to give the ball to Kyrie to take them home. He’s shown that he can’t be the best player on a contending team, and I agree with you: He’s done in Boston.”
Rose accentuated his point: “And you ready for this? You ready for this? The teammates will help him pack. They can’t wait for him to leave, either. They’ll help him to pack!”
Had that same comment been made in, say, February, it would have been considered slightly outrageous. Some may still characterize it as such. But coming off a 12-point home loss (that wasn’t even that close) in which he shot 31.8 percent from the field and then praised his own shooting greatness afterwards while lamenting the fact that he didn’t take eight more shots? It’d be difficult to say that Rose isn’t speaking some truth.
If Rose is right — if Irving is indeed “done” in Boston — then the Celtics will have nothing to show for the 2017 trade that sent the basketball world into a frenzy. While the Celtics won’t have any regrets about what they gave up in the deal (with sincere apologies to Isaiah Thomas’ hip), the team no doubt expected more than … this. Certainly, the Celtics could have mustered a second-round playoff exit without having the services of Kyrie available to them. They made it farther in the playoffs last year when he was injured, as well as the year before that, when Irving was still on the Cavs.
The idea of adding a champion like Kyrie was to elevate the Celtics, to get them over that final hurdle in order to rise to true contender status. Though their failure to do so is not entirely Irving’s fault at all, he undoubtedly hasn’t helped the cause the way that Danny Ainge and Co. almost surely anticipated.
Though he’s carrying himself with an even consistency off the court, Irving is no doubt feeling disappointment as well. That might have explained why Irving was so eager to get off the court and into the locker room Monday night, before the final horn had sounded. When asked for an explanation for his early departure, Irving stated simply, “The game was over.”
That it was. While we don’t know what the future holds for the free-agent-to-be, Irving’s Celtics career may also soon be over.
What a disappointment.