BOSTON (CBS) — Based on their postgame interactions, Kyrie Irving’s former Celtics teammates don’t seem to harbor any ill will toward the Nets superstar for his decision to bounce from Boston in favor of Brooklyn. But Celtics fans? That may be a slightly different story. And Irving will soon be learning that for the first time since his free-agent decision in the spring of 2019.
With the Celtics now locked in to a first-round playoff series against Kyrie and the Nets, Irving is set to play in front of fans in Boston for the very first time since leaving the team.
Irving’s expected return to Boston on Thanksgiving Eve in 2019 didn’t happen, due to a shoulder injury that kept him out of Brooklyn’s lineup for two months. He missed Brooklyn’s other trip to Boston later in the year, as he cut his season off short to undergo shoulder surgery.
Irving did finally return to the Garden in the preseason prior to this year, and he perhaps made some NBA history when he burned sage to expel any lingering negative spirits that might have otherwise interfered with his ability to play basketball.
Kyrie burning sage around TD Garden before Nets-Celtics tipoff
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 18, 2020
"Kyrie probably sages his room before he plays 2K … That's his thing, and we all respect him."
— ESPN (@espn) December 19, 2020
Irving scored 17 points with seven rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block in 28 minutes of action that night. But it of course took place with no fans in attendance.
The seats were also empty when Irving visited Boston on Christmas Day and dropped 37 points with eight assists and six rebounds in a 28-point blowout win for the Nets.
That Christmas Day game was Brooklyn’s lone visit of the season, meaning the Nets never came back to Boston after the city started allowing fans — first at 12 percent capacity in late March, then at 25 percent capacity beginning on May 10.
So, there will be fans in attendance when Irving and the Nets visit Boston for Game 3 of the upcoming series. That may be at 25 percent capacity — or a tick under 5,000 fans — but it also could be much closer to full capacity. This week, the state announced that COVID-19 restrictions will come to an end on May 29. That news opened the door for sports venues to let fans in en masse. The Red Sox opened up ticket sales to fill Fenway Park, beginning on May 29. The Bruins will do the same if they can advance past the first round of their postseason.
For the Celtics, they’re sure to get at least one game in with a full house. Game 1 is scheduled for Saturday, May 22. No other games have yet been scheduled. It’s likely that Game 3 is played before Saturday, May 29, but the NBA’s first-round series have occasionally included some lengthy gaps between games, so it’s not entirely clear just yet.
In any event, at least 5,000 fans will be there for Game 3, and a whole lot more will be there for Game 4.
That may not be nearly enough to influence the series in favor of the Celtics, of course. The Nets went 48-24 this season, and they went 3-0 vs. the Celtics. The Celtics went 36-36 and failed to find consistency all year, and they’re without Jaylen Brown.
The fan story, though, still matters. The unfriendly welcome may impact Irving in the sense that he seemed to go out of his way to avoid playing in Cleveland after joining the Celtics. Irving played in the Celtics’ season opener in Cleveland in October 2017, but he sat out for both of Boston’s visits to Cleveland the following season.
Outside of that, Irving’s brief tenure in Boston involved him not even attending Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals while injured, followed by his announcement that he wanted to sign with Boston long-term, which was then followed by a tumultuous 2018-19 season that ended with him opting to leave as a free agent. He shot 30.1 percent from the field and 18.5 percent from 3-point range in four straight playoff losses to Milwaukee, ending his Celtics career on a sour note.
Fans have since harbored some major resentment toward Irving for a variety of reasons, and they’ll get their very first chance to express those feelings to Irving in the coming week.