For a brief moment Saturday in the midst of the NBA’s whirlwind schedule, Kyrie Irving touched down in The Mecca -- a title that hasn’t expired even after decades of at times excruciating man-made basketball mediocrity -- as close to his home in New Jersey as any stop on this NBA tour will grant him.
It’s game three of this fresh NBA season and things are not exactly going as planned. The Celtics were supposed to come in with a pair of statement wins against top Eastern Conference foes in Philadelphia and Toronto, cementing their rightful place in what many assume will be a trip to the Finals come June. This game didn’t feature any of the competitive juices that the first two delivered (or gastric acid produced as a result of watching Kawhi look like Kawhi). Nor was it worth being circled in anticipation on your calendar.
But, had everything gone as planned when this year’s schedule popped off the presses, it might have delivered the delicious subtext of uneasiness, the one that settles into the pit of your stomach as 20,000 Knickerbockers ogle and covet and blanket Kyrie Irving with shameless cheers: a mix of adulation, adoration, and supplication.
With NBA contracts getting shorter and shorter, providing early outs for stars with wandering eyes, the NBA has turned into the sports version of campaigning while in office: there never seems to be any respite for teams or assurances that your star will be yours this time next year because there’s now always a second storyline burgeoning alongside the one on the floor. They’re the nagging floaters in our vision produced by the unsettling sight of players and agents and fan bases fawning over the superstars they desire every chance they get. We’re all guilty of it, I suppose.
That dream of a hometown kid coming home was bashed against a rock when Kyrie pledged his allegiance to an unsuspecting crowd of hungry Bostonians at open practice a couple of weeks ago. No one with his clout and sheen of desirability has ever produced a gesture of that magnitude before as far as I can remember.
Game #3 had all the makings of a popcorn game, the Psych 101 class sandwiched between your Cryptography and Group Theory classes. Back-to-back road games for Boston, a heartbreaking Caris Levert layup to seal the win for Brooklyn against the Knicks the night before, a KP-less rag tag collection of players for the Knicks and no Gordon Hayward because of sore ankle recovery.
It was a tale shoddily told where everything interesting is concentrated at the beginning and at the end, where you can get away with skimming the prologue and introduction, flip through to the last few pages and claim you “read” the book.
But it didn’t keep Kyrie from stealing the show despite his early season, still dusting off the mothballs and playing himself back in basketball rhythm, form.
First, there was David Fizdale, as effusive as you can be about a guy on the opposing team, when asked if Kyrie has looked like himself in the early going:
TAMPERER!!! https://t.co/AJ41QSOUl1— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) October 21, 2018
Meanwhile, in the locker room, Kyrie looked as relaxed as can be, showing off his cool dulcet tones an hour before everyone would eventually step out onto the court.
Then, the opening lineups.
At 6’3, from Duke, number 11, Kyrie Irving.
A noticeable uptick in volume, not quite cheers, not quite boos, but largely the sound of collective letdown.
While Kyrie has not looked the part through the first two games, it didn’t take long for him to re-traumatize the onlookers.
Here’s Kyrie pretending to innocently jog back and not know where the pass is going while tracking the play the entire way.
Here’s the second steal that’s even more impressive than the first. You can hear the “Kyrie, Kyrie” implorations in the background; he overshoots on the cover and what should have been Irving getting burned turns into another steal going the other way for a Baynes and-1.
After going up 16 in the first, the Celtics go into a prolonged dormancy. Three quarters go by with not much noteworthy to report on, the Knicks refuse to lay down and die, and somehow the score is all tied up at 89 with another Tim Hardaway Jr. three and just over four minutes to go.
If last year was about muzzling all the doubters and producing in all the ways he’d been accused of not contributing during his tenure in Cleveland, Irving is tuning out the white noise and shooting for a more nuanced approach to impacting the game.
Irving would say this after the game: “It’s a unique role I’m in this year, that I haven’t been in in my career as of yet of just -- it’s not so much about scoring, it’s not so much about the numbers or anything like that, it’s about the impact I make on the game, and having collectively our group be on the same accord. I’m enjoying it, it’s tough at times obviously you want to make every shot too that goes along with it. But just play hard on defense and doing the right things.”
Back on the court, not all possessions are worth the same. Seemingly peeved, Irving clicks into killer mode.
Gets to the line and sinks a pair. 91-89.
Spins baseline and finds Al with the wraparound bounce pass for the easy two. 93-89
A tight crossover at the elbow for a beautiful three point play. 96-89.
Another beautiful pass on the now infamous missed dunk by Tatum.
And the rest is history. Scrambling mayhem at MSG culminating with a wild foul on Burke near half court and a missed free throw that kept the madness from spilling into OT.
After the game, asked about Tatum, Irving once again sounded like a proud elder. “That guy’s just super talented. To be so young, be so poised.”
What Kyrie perhaps missed was how his entire bench stood for him down the stretch, bouncing around and delighting in the spectacle that Kyrie generates, whether he’s blisteringly hot, or shaking off the rust but still finding ways to show up when it matters the most.
Kyrie’s a coach’s player.
He’s a player’s player.
He’s a fan’s player.
He’s likely without parallel.
This wasn’t the dazzling “IT goes for 40 at MSG” performance, nor was it the “Paul Pierce sticks a dagger in the hearts of Knicks fans, again” variety. It was more of a ragged, tired effort on a back-to-back that manufactured excitement, punctuated by an eventual Pierce-like fadeaway by the Celtics 20-year old star. Like Morris said, “It’s still only three games.”
And when Irving was inevitably asked for the thousandth time after the game why Boston, the answer was simple: You would too if you were in my shoes.
As I walked out onto the court long after the game had ended and the floor was being taken apart, only a few employees were left shuffling around, doing their work. Then I heard laughter emanating from the rafters.
There was Kyrie, as happy as could be, up in the stands with about twenty friends and family, just hanging out, close to home.
Those Knicks, I thought, who despite their weird collection of promising rookies, injured star, and relative unknowns to round out the roster, had put out their best effort and refused to play down to the expectations set for them...
Moments later, as I was walking home and Madison Square Garden had emptied out onto the streets, I surveyed the scene. There were a few fans left eagerly waiting for the last players to trickle out of the Garden. A young girl, ecstatic, was taking a picture with one of the Knicks rising stars. There she was, embracing their own #11, Frank Ntilikina, with as big a smile as could fit on her small face.
He’s no Kyrie, and the joy of fancying Kyrie in that delectable mental game of “what if” might have been taken away from them sooner than they’d imagined. The Knicks will do the only thing they can: get behind their young talent, bide their time and hope another star chooses to descend on New York to complement the first earnest rebuild they’ve set out on in hopes of one day earning The Mecca title they’ve long hung onto undeservingly.
Irving and the Celtics, meanwhile, are already gone, and looking forward to the next challenge. It’s only game four, and it’s only the Orlando Magic, but game by game, the Celtics are building towards something they hope will reverberate in New York and far beyond.