Anderson: Kyrie Irving got what he wanted, but now comes proving he can handle it

Ty Anderson
October 19, 2017 - 4:39 pm

David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

When you get beyond the drama of the fallout between Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, which seems flatter than Earth after their postgame hug and conflict-free meeting on Tuesday, what you really had was a player (Irving) entering the prime of his career and wanting to be in a situation where he would be the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Irving kinda got that when he was traded to the Celtics, a team with Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and countless young building blocks, already on board. Even so, that beat the alternative of being the star of an NBA nightmare of working yourself to the bone just to be an eight-seed and get absolutely destroyed by some NBA superteam, and it was believed that Irving was going to be the most important player on the C’s regardless.

In two games and as many losses with the All-Star Hayward on a hospital bed instead of on the court as Irving’s go-to option, and with an entire season without Hayward likely on the horizon, Irving has undoubtedly been revealed as that important piece for the Celtics' chances now and later.

He’s also been shown just how difficult it can be to be that guy on a contender.

Out of the shadow of LeBron and in the face of incessant boos, the 25-year-old Irving finished his Cleveland homecoming with 22 points and 10 rebounds in over 39 minutes, and converted on eight of his 17 attempts. His last miss was the biggest, of course, as Irving failed to knock down what would've been the game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer. Wednesday’s home-opening loss to the Bucks was a largely different story, as Irving missed on all but seven of his 25 attempts (a 28 field goal percentage, a figure he shot below in just five of his 72 games with the Cavs last season).

Irving saved his worst for the second half, too, and shot 3-for-17, with a 2-for-10 mark in the fourth quarter.

Irving’s visible frustration with his night may have bled over to his coach’s postgame press conference, too, as Stevens dodged two separate questions on Irving’s shooting, turning the first one into a critique of his team and then telling a different reporter that he would have to ask Irving for the answer to his Kyrie’s-shot-struggled line of questioning.

“Gotta get ‘em up,” Irving said of his shot attempts. “Gotta get the shots up, man.

“It’s the first back-to-back of the season. You don’t want to harp too much on a shooting night like that. But that’s their first game of the season, we’re coming off a great challenge for us [Tuesday in Cleveland] coming into [Wednesday], understand the circumstances that we were in, and just playing a lot of different guys out there.”

In a matter of one answer, Irving came up with two different excuses. More followed.

“It’s not gonna look perfect, and we understand that. The challenge is continuing to get better and progress and raise our expectations in one another,” Irving continued. “Guys are gonna need to step up and understand what defenses are going to try to do every single night. Tough shots are going to happen. Not necessarily having all my legs that I would have liked under all my legs [didn’t help], but I gotta continue to be aggressive in order for this team to be successful and I understand that.”

But wait, there’s more.

“You see out there we got [Abdel] Nader out there now, we got Semi [Ojeleye] out there. And to be honest, we haven’t, even in the first group, practiced with those guys,” Irving said. “And now they’re out there playing big time minutes and we know them to utilize them and they need to be in spots and knows their spots one through five.

“As you can see, it’s not an ideal situation,” Irving said of Hayward’s absence. “As cliche as it is, everybody’s probably gonna say, ‘That’s life.’” But it is, man.

“[Expletive] happens.”

So, to recap, Irving’s piss-poor shooting night could be explained by a traveling back-to-back, not having his legs, the quality of the guys on the floor with him in Nader and Ojeleye, and those teammates not knowing the plays or where to be on the floor.

Before we go any further, it’s worth acknowledging some of Irving’s excuses are beyond valid. Namely, it’s absolutely crazy that the Celtics began their year with a traveling back-to-back against the Cavs and Bucks, two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams. At least the similarly-scheduled Rockets began their back-to-back with Golden State (Oakland) and Sacramento, two cities separated by about an hour by car and what I can only assume is a 35-point differential when it comes their overall ratings on NBA 2K18 (I’m still trying to build my expansion dynasty in 2K17, so I’m sorry that I can’t verify). Losing Hayward is also as difficult as first imagined, and it's left the Celtics with one fewer, considerably potent option on the floor. 

The other reasons, however, come off as just plain cringeworthy.

Nader and Ojeleye are not common fixtures of the C’s rotation, and I’d be dumb to try and tell you otherwise. But this is not like asking Paul Pierce to carry Chucky Atkins and Chris Mihm. This isn’t even like telling Rajon Rondo to make it work with anybody from those ghastly teams in 2013 and 2014. And even if you were, this is something that the 6-foot-3 Irving allegedly wanted. You can’t realistically say that you want out of Cleveland, want to be the focal point of a team, and then complain or shift blame when you don’t have other players as accomplished or polished as you on the floor.

Not if you’re going to be taken seriously as the leader you want to develop into, anyway.

And perhaps especially so when mentioning those players as minuses for what you’re able to do on the court conveniently leaves out the fact that most of your time on the floor has been spent with the likes of Horford, Jaylen Brown, and the young-but-capable Jayson Tatum.

There’s a thin line between pumping your teammates up by demanding more from them and throwing them under the bus. Kyrie, an open and honest player, but with no real evidence that Nader and Ojeleye were the ones that made him throw up 18 misses, blurred the line and inched it towards the latter on Wednesday night.

Of course, this is a part of the learning process that most of us neglected when considering Irving’s fit with the Celtics. It was hard not to. The C’s got themselves a legit, bonafide superstar that’s shined on the game’s biggest stage. How the hell could you possibly care about the fit? The fit would be constructed around him. But Irving was always going from a loaded Cavs team to a Celtic group that was most definitely going to have some growing pains, even with Hayward riding shotgun to Irving. And Irving was always stepping into star shoes, especially after what Isaiah Thomas’ C’s accomplished.

Without anybody -- be it LeBron, Kevin Love, or now even Gordon Hayward -- to bail him out or prevent him from growing into the player he wants to be, Kyrie is exactly what he wanted to be when he first let it be known that he would not return to the only NBA city he had ever known: He's the guy.

Now comes following through, acting, and carrying himself like it for a Celtics team that can't accept anything less.

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