Tomase: The Kyrie conundrum has Celtics playing better when star's not on floor

John Tomase
March 05, 2019 - 12:12 am

For six minutes on Sunday afternoon, the Celtics turned back the clock to 2018.

They trailed the Rockets by 22 when Brad Stevens opened the fourth quarter with reserves Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, and Daniel Theis alongside starter Jayson Tatum.

What could easily have been another listless defeat instead transformed into Boston's only sign of life. Brown turned up the defensive intensity on MVP James Harden. Rozier ignited the C's in transition. Hayward made smart passes in the open floor. Theis crashed the lane.

As the crowd roared, the C's cut the deficit from 22 to 16 to 12. When Hayward sprang Brown for a transition dunk with 6:08 left, the Celtics suddenly trailed by 10.

Then Kyrie Irving checked back into the game.

The All-Star guard has appeared depressingly detached over the last month or so, but his disinterest has grown particularly alarming in the past 10 games. Where once Irving made at least a token effort on defense, he now points a lot of fingers as if to say, "there goes my guy, why isn't anyone guarding him?"

He can still slice to the basket at will, but his offensive game has become strangely passive, too. He attacks in spurts, otherwise content to move the ball aimlessly around the perimeter in a surprisingly stale offense, considering the talent surrounding him.

And when he's on the bench? Forget it. The viral image of Irving in Toronto staring glassy-eyed like he'd rather be living in LeBron's armpit again told the story of this unraveling season. But it wasn't an isolated incident. Rewatch Sunday's comeback and you'll notice Irving standing motionless at the end of the bench, hands clasped behind his back as if waiting to speak to a gate agent. He's not exactly exuding enthusiasm.

And so it was that Irving retook the floor with most of Boston's starters and Houston's lead sliced to 10. Harden hadn't yet scored in the frame, but he wasted no time driving Irving to the hole for two and then drilling a patented step-back three in his face, boosting the lead to 12. Add a turnover on a wild drive and a missed desperation 3-pointer, and Irving's final five minutes were complete. The Celtics lost by 11.

Watching it unfold in real time, you couldn't help but notice the difference in energy level with Irving on the bench. It provided a glimpse of what this team looked like nine months ago en route to Game 7 of the conference finals.

Why rely on one guy when you've got eight? Why pound the ball when moving it might result in an open look? Why blame teammates for failed rotations when flying around made the Celtics one of the stoutest defensive teams in the NBA?

Laying this all at Irving's feet may not be fair, but he wanted a team to call his own and this is the one he's got. He forced his way out of Cleveland to prove he could be an alpha, and leadership responsibilities don't apply only to wins.

Sensing the need to ease off the doom and gloom, Irving sounded more upbeat when addressing reporters in San Francisco on Monday ahead of Tuesday's matchup with the Warriors. He explained that the video of him bemoaning the cameras in his face as entered the Garden on Sunday reflected his dissatisfaction with the scrutiny NBA players regularly face. He also acknowledged how he could overcome it.

"By just realizing that it's not as bad as you make it seem," he said. "You know, everyone's not at odds with you all the time. You just get back to the root of what makes you tick and why you love the game of basketball."

Given the talent level of the Celtics, it's still possible they win the Eastern Conference. It won't happen without Irving rediscovering his joy for the game, though, because as he goes the C's go. And right now he's dragging them down.

A year ago, he made Boston feel like a destination, hugging rival superstars at midcourt after every game. He was an ambassador until a knee injury forced him to become a cheerleader, and so then he led the celebrations as the Celtics made their improbable run to the conference finals.

Photographers caught Irving laughing and joking with teammates Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier at Monday's practice, and the official Celtics Twitter account posted the photo in a desperate attempt to assure us everything's copacetic.

But we know that's not the case. The lovable, overachieving Celtics of last year are gone, replaced by sniping and infighting. Irving became so frustrated with some of the younger players, he felt compelled to call James and apologize for being such handful early in his own career.

Watching him now, it's fair to wonder if he'll experience a similar epiphany in about five years when he's in New York or L.A. or wherever comes next. Maybe he'll even drop Stevens or Danny Ainge a line explaining that he gets it now, except of course it will be too late.


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