The Boston Celtics won five straight games before getting blown out by the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, and even still they have two chances at TD Garden to take a commanding lead in their quest to reach a third straight conference finals. They have looked little like the team that publicly griped its way through a season marked by underachievement.
One reason for that, a number of Celtics players told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, is they turned off their phones. They paid too much attention to what the media said about them — where they ranked as players or earners or trade assets — and what they said about each other through the media. Irving passive-aggressively called out Boston’s young players publicly, who in kind passive-aggressively called out Irving, and it was churned through the NBA’s content machine in a vicious cycle.
They didn’t actually talk to each other, instead relying on their social media feeds to inform them of what was happening in their own locker room, which is about as apt a commentary on today’s society as an NBA team can make. Then, according to MacMullan, Jaylen Brown confronted Irving in January, and Irving heard him out to the point he was personally counseling teammates in the weeks before the playoffs.
This is great news if you’re a Celtics fan, because for a while there, it really looked as though Irving was dousing the team in gasoline, lighting a match and preparing to walk away from the wreckage in free agency. If all it took was for the Celtics to stop listening to, as Irving put it, “fake basketball analysts,” more power to them.
"I've been playing basketball a lot longer than some of these people analyzing the game," he told ESPN. "I'm an actual genius when it comes to this game. If you ask me about basketball, I will talk all day. If you ask me about spacing at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter, I will gladly explain it. I'll tell you what plays worked, about adjustments we make. But when it comes to personal things, or comparing myself to my NBA brothers, like, 'Do you think you are better than this guy?' I'm out."
I'm an actual genius when it comes to this game.
That’s the pull-quote here, and it could be rich coming through the lens of the guy who thought the Earth was flat because he watched a bunch of Instagram videos. In that case, it’s probably a good thing he put down his phone and recalibrated.
Instead, look at it through this lens: Irving is a basketball genius. He is a wizard with arguably the best handle ever. He delivered the dagger that defeated the greatest regular-season team in NBA history. He has played for Mike Krzyzewski and with LeBron James. He is one of the 10-best people in the world currently working in his profession. (Sorry about the ranking there, but it’s true.) You don’t get to that level without an understanding of the game that exceeds the 99.99999999999 percent of people who in their lifetimes have never achieved what he has done by age 27.
He certainly knows more about the game than anyone on, say, ESPN’s “First Take,” the hot-take artist panel that Irving joined in September 2017. There are few better decisions Irving could have come to than to tune them out. That alone is worthy of the genius label. It is sound advice for all basketball players, and it is all the better for the Celtics if it solves the locker-room issues they litigated through the media.
All that said, I’m still not entirely sure I understand everything Irving told MacMullan.
"I think this whole business is flawed, by the way the draft is set up, by the way the coaches and the GMs are set up, the way people get fired and traded," he added.
"When you think about putting a leather basketball in a rim, and how many other complicated things happen because of that one simple thing, with our families and our lives, you can understand why people are struggling."
I think he means that you can lose yourself pretty quickly in the game of basketball when you start considering all that factors into the NBA off the court. I think. That, of course, raises questions about what the league would be like without the power structure and media surrounding it. It would be pure, which I think is what guys like Irving and Kevin Durant are always going on about, but it may not be so lucrative.
These are the existential questions commentators love to discuss, because they can be far more interesting than the spacing at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter. Such debates aren’t going to beat the Bucks, though, and that’s what the Celtics are after. Finally. Let the geniuses play basketball and us dummies talk about it.
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