Tomase: Kyrie Irving is right. The Celtics need to grow up. But it starts with him

John Tomase
January 18, 2019 - 1:26 pm
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Kyrie Irving means well. But when it comes to young Celtics struggling to understand their responsibilities, Irving tops the list.

He's a joy to watch and as he proved again in Wednesday's scintillating victory over the Raptors, he's made of steel where it counts, drilling a 30-footer in Kawhi Leonard's face and then popping his jersey at the delirious Garden crowd. With a title-winning 3-pointer on his resume, Irving's a legit alpha in crunch time and there are precious few of those.

But the whole leadership thing is proving more ill-fitting than bedazzled sweats on Uncle Drew. Irving has spent the year alternately cajoling and castigating his inexperienced teammates, often whipsawing between the two extremes for no discernible reason.

Things came to head during a horrific road trip through Florida and Brooklyn when the Celtics lost three straight to teams they mostly should've crushed (although the Nets proved in Houston they're no fluke). After a loss in Miami, Irving eschewed the night life to hit the practice floor. This is good Kyrie, setting an example for the rest of the team.

But after a defeat in Orlando that ended with Gordon Hayward hitting Jayson Tatum for a back-rimmed fallaway at the buzzer, Irving first berated the veteran in-bounder for bypassing him, and then delivered a meandering soliloquy to the media about leadership and inexperience that treaded dangerously close to gibberish:

"So, the things you're doing, that you've done your entire career, of being able to coast by in certain situations, and you've gotten away with your youth and stuff like that. Being on a championship ball club, you can't get away with that. You see the fans going crazy. You see it gets loud.

"I know from the majority of the fact that we're better than most teams in this league. It's just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it. So until we do that every single night and realize our depth is a positive and all the wishes and could haves and should have done that, once that goes out the window, then we'll be better. But until then, we're going to keep having these ups and downs and these lulls of going against teams on the road and they just know they can take advantage of us down the stretch, or when this group is in or that's group out.

"It has to be a cohesion. I've got to be better as the leader of the team as doing so and making sure these guys have more experience in certain situations like that, being more communicative. So I put it on me of just being better."

Good luck unpacking that, but before our brains could stop swimming, Irving shook up the snow globe again with the acknowledgment that he shouldn't have called out younger teammates, followed almost immediately by the contradictory revelation that he had dialed former teammate LeBron James to apologize for being a petulant brat when they played together in Cleveland.

It's hard in one breath to say you regret the public airing of grievances, and then to disclose, effectively, that being surrounded by ignorant youngsters helped you understand how ignorant you were, too.

At this point it's worth hitting the pause button. Irving's openness with the media is refreshing, because it gives fans a window into his thinking, and we'd be gigantic hypocrites to complain about that. It's part of what makes him the most fascinating athlete in Boston. The problem is the vacillating message: carrot or stick?

Jaylen Brown, the presumed object of much of Irving's ire -- especially after getting shoved on the bench by veteran Marcus Morris for not hustling back on defense in Miami -- responded perfectly when he said that leadership starts at the top, not the bottom.

And Brown's a great example of what can happen when a leader takes a scattershot approach to leading. He's clearly battling confidence issues, which have already cost him a spot in the starting lineup, and blaming him for every loss when team-wide issues supersede his struggles is unlikely to inspire him. Know your audience.

Similarly, criticizing a possession that ends with the ball in the hands of a 20-year-old borderline All-Star doesn't send much of a message either. Tatum's jumper may have been contested, but it's also a shot he can make (and in this case barely missed). Just rewind a year to see how the Celtics benefited from sharing the ball in game-winning situations. Morris (Thunder), Al Horford (Blazers, Rockets), Brown (Jazz), and Terry Rozier (Pacers) each drilled buzzer beaters because no one cared about who had the ball.

Irving took a step towards acknowledging that dynamic on Wednesday, when he recorded a career-high 18 assists. His step-back jumper and dagger 3-pointer gave the Celtics the lead, and then assists to Horford and another that sprung Tatum for a dunk put the game away.

It's up to him to continue growing. For all his talk about inexperience, his young teammates reached Game 7 of the conference finals last year without him. That wasn't dumb luck.

It's also not feasible to expect that they'll contend without Irving as the centerpiece. We know he has it in him. Now the question is whether he can grow up in time to lead them there.

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