NEW YORK — Dismiss Kyrie Irving if you like, but the Boston Celtics’ All-Star sees the warning signs of a team playing too casually too late in the season, which often results in playoff disappointment.
Irving wanted the immense expectations, engineering his way out of Cleveland and out of the shadow of the game’s preeminent player, so his voice would hold the most weight and his hands could steer a championship contender.
More and more, he’s learning the gravity of his words, even as they come to be strangely prophetic in a season that could be slipping away. He emphasized a sense of urgency to his teammates following the Celtics’ 109-102 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday at Barclays Center, a game that saw his team frenetically attempt a fourth-quarter rally after falling behind by 27 with 8:55 left.
Irving, who missed the game with a right quad injury, addressed the team after the game. He also pointedly questioned his teammates’ experience after the Celtics squandered a 12-point lead in a loss to the Orlando Magic on Saturday night. “We all got to be on the same page and have that mindset that … a championship or nothing,” Irving said after the morning shootaround Monday. “And sometimes, that can get the best of me at times.”
Clearly, he’s not afraid of his words being drowned out over the course of 82 games. He’s craved this moment and this level of influence. His teammates are taking heed, saying his words were encouraging about the comeback Monday, which saw the Celtics cut the lead to seven with a minute remaining.
“It’s the truth,” Celtics second-year forward Jayson Tatum said. “He knows what it takes to win a championship and most of us don’t. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest in this profession to get the best out of one another. It came from a good place.”
Whether grudgingly or willingly — or even subconsciously — Irving is taking a page from LeBron James’ book of well-timed callouts when the ship appears to teeter. And perhaps Irving had a sense of clairvoyance with his team, that there’s a sense things are too relaxed in January for a team with June dreams.
Monday was the gift and curse, Irving’s words coming to life. Nonchalant play against a Nets team that played harder and with more conviction led to the lopsided score and chants of “Kyrie’s leaving!” from a confident Barclays Center crowd.
“Kyrie said a lot after the last game and it was probably stuff that people didn’t want to hear,” Terry Rozier III told Yahoo Sports. “But it’s showing.”
Rozier, Tatum and Jaylen Brown each had expanded roles last spring with Irving’s late-season absence and Gordon Hayward’s opening-night injury, and the integration of all those talented players has been uneven at best.
Hayward has gone from starter to spark plug off the bench, while Tatum is going through typical second-year struggles for a player who’s not yet 21. Brown is still finding his way, and the overall jumbled nature has shown as midseason approaches.
“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”
When asked if the roster was too talented, Rozier didn’t back down.
“Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”
The talent was on display as Tatum and Brown spearheaded the comeback as the Nets appeared petrified with the Celtics stalking them.
Tatum finished with a career-high 34 points while Brown’s 22 tied his highest-scoring output this calendar year. But the Celtics’ third straight loss — following an apparently galvanizing four-game winning streak — places the Celtics fifth in the East, a full seven games behind conference-leading Toronto, their opponent Wednesday.
Irving’s criticism didn’t come by accident. He’s seen some things linger for the better part of 40 games and decided it was time to use his bullhorn, perhaps testing the waters to see how his sentiments would be received by a team still searching for its identity.
In actuality, the Celtics had a bad third quarter and Nets guard D’Angelo Russell — who finished with 34 points — got hot. But one bad quarter can cost them a playoff game. One playoff game can cost them a series.
“It’s tough to win four straight and lose [three] straight,” Marcus Morris said following the loss. “I would be lying if I said we knew our identity because the identity of a good team don’t do that. [Good teams] don’t take steps back, being on the road or at home. Still searching, I guess.”
The Celtics, collectively, have been given the benefit of the doubt across the board. Danny Ainge is revered. Brad Stevens is lauded. The roster is deep — maybe too deep and too talented for its own good.
But the Celtics have been penciled in as East representatives for the Finals since the day LeBron James went west, and not even Kawhi Leonard’s arrival up north was enough to alter the embedded images of a team that made a surprising run to Game 7 of the conference finals last season.
Most felt Irving being a leader would be a tougher task than this team actually putting it all together. Based on his performance this season, he’s holding up his end of the bargain.
And even if his words were borne of frustration, he’s learning about what it means to be the first name on the marquee. Ensuring this group stays on task without splintering is his responsibility, and there have been signs of the Celtics’ facade cracking.
“I feel like we have them talks throughout the season, but it didn’t turn out that good,” Rozier said. “You see guys get into it with each other, but that’s part of the game. You gotta be real with each other.”
When asked if Irving’s critique was necessary, Rozier had a simple reply.