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2024 NBA Finals: Kyrie Irving addresses rocky Celtics tenure, fallout with fans as Mavs get set for Game 1

For a moment in time, Kyrie Irving was on his way to becoming something of a Boston hero. It was the fall of 2018, and Irving, who had just finished his first season with the Celtics — averaging 24.4 points and 5.1 assists in 60 games — and was entering the final season of his contract, declared his informal allegiance to the Celtics amid concerns that he was going to leave in free agency. 

“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here next summer,” Irving infamously said at a fan-fest event for season ticket holders. 

Irving did not keep his word. That next season ended rather embarrassingly, with the Celtics bounced in the second round by the Bucks in five games, over which Irving — who looked, shall we say, less than enthused about being on the court by the end of the series — averaged an almost empty 20 points on 35% shooting, including 21% from 3. 

A little more than two months later, Irving signed with the Brooklyn Nets, and to say his relationship with Celtics fans went sour would be an understatement. In 2021, when Irving’s Nets bounced Boston in five games in the first round, a fan was arrested for throwing a water bottle at Irving after Game 4. 

What was the fan mad about? Well, a short time before that, Irving scuffed his shoe on Lucky the Leprechaun’s face as he made his way to center court to greet his teammates during a timeout. 

The next season, when Boston swept the Nets out of the first round in what would be Irving’s final playoff act in Brooklyn, Irving landed himself a $50K fine for giving Boston fans the bird during Game 1. 

Also, who could forget Irving’s his first trip back to Boston after joining the Nets in December of 2020, when he walked around the court burning sage — a spiritual Native American ritual believed to cleanse a space —  prior to the game.

So, yeah, there was some bad blood between Irving and Boston, and there probably still is. As Irving’s Mavericks get set to face off against the Celtics in the Finals, which begin Thursday, Irving addressed his time with Boston and took his share of the blame for the way he handled things with the fans. 

“I think I’m better at consolidating kind of the emotions now or being aware of what it’s going to be like,” Irving said Monday about returning to Boston for this series. “We call it animosity, we call it hate, we call it, ‘It’s going to be hell in Boston.’ I mean, there are real, live circumstances going on in the world that are bigger than the basketball, kind of the competitive side of things and answering those questions.

“But I will say last time in Boston, I don’t think that was the best — not this regular season, but when we played in the playoffs [with Brooklyn] and everyone saw me flip off the birds and kind of lose my s–t a little bit. That wasn’t a great reflection of who I am and how I like to compete on a high level. It wasn’t a great reflection on my end towards the next generation on what it means to control your emotions in that type of environment, no matter what people are yelling at you.

“I’m built for these moments, to be able to handle circumstances like that, and I’ve been able to grow since then,’ Irving concluded. “So of course it’s going to be a hectic environment, but I’m looking forward to it and I see it as a healthy relationship that I have with the fans. I almost think about ‘Gladiator,’ just winning the crowd over. It is good to hear the TD Garden silent when you’re playing well. They still respect great basketball.”

Irving admitted to the “fair criticism” he faced for the way things ended in Boston, but also noted that he believes that “a little bit more grace could have been extended” his way .. “especially what I was dealing with during that time as a human being.”

Irving cited personal issues he was dealing with at the time, but was also apt to point out all that he learned about being a leader on that Celtics team, and the opportunity he has now fully seized to serve as the voice of a Mavericks team looking to him for guidance. 

We all gave the guy hell when he was busy blowing up franchises, so we should also be fair in our analysis of him now. Whatever the root of his change, there’s no doubt he’s a different and probably a much better teammate now than he has ever been in his career. He has conducted himself with real humility and with great perspective from the moment he landed in Dallas, this year especially. 

And he has played awesome basketball, which has never been a problem for him. Put all that together, and package it alongside Luka Doncic, and it’s no surprise that the Mavericks are in this position. 

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