Irving got his handshakes, now he gets unquestioned leadership
by Rex Factor Scores & Statson
Two scenes stood out on Tuesday night’s NBA season opener in Cleveland. One was the gruesome injury suffered by new Boston Celtics max-contract wingman Gordon Hayward. The other came more than two hours later, after the other new big-ticket Boston offseason addition missed a potential game-tying shot at the buzzer, then went around embracing and doing cryptic handshakes with no less than five guys who were his teammates just four months ago.
Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland to escape LeBron James’s immense and sometimes overwhelming shadow. He wanted to prove that he can go win a championship without the help of James, who has now played on a team that has represented the Eastern Conference in a dizzying seven straight seasons.
Need Previews and Predictions for every NBA game today? Click here for easy access, with video of Hayward's grusome injury.
The last East team to remain standing in June before James started dominating April and May were these Celtics back in 2010. It’s also where Irving was able to coax a Cleveland trade in August for high-scoring guard Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Boston’s 2018 first-round pick and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick. Thomas is injured and won’t be playing for the Cavs for at least a couple of months. But that’s hardly a concern to Cleveland, which won’t need his services to roll through a once-again weakened East until April. And it’s not the answer that Irving gave to the assembled media at Tuesday’s shootaround prior to Cleveland’s 102-99 triumph.
“I kind of want to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to continue to dive into a narrative they have no idea about and probably will never, ever be divulged because it’s not important,” Irving said. “This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness... I will never pinpoint anything because that’s not what real grown-ups do. They continue to move on with their life and continue to progress and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
He’ll have to figure out how to do it without Hayward, signed to a maximum contract away from Utah as a free agent earlier this summer. Gordon Hayward played at Butler for current Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who now much shuffle the deck, go back to the drawing board and figure out other ways to win; just four Celtics from last year Eastern Conference top-seed are on this roster. Hayward’s dislocated ankle and fractured tibia will have him out almost assuredly for the entire season.
Guys like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and rookie Jayson Tatum have to contribute consistently and immediately at both ends if the Celtics want to hang near the top of the conference. Brown has shown he will likely be able to take a bigger scoring role, going for 25 points in 40 minutes Tuesday. Tatum picked up 14 points and 10 rebounds to notch a double-double in his debut. Smart had 12 points and four steals off the bench, but shot 16 times. Brown and Tatum are the two young pieces that Boston no longer has the luxury of easing into big situations.
With Hayward and all of his scoring gone, Irving will have to contribute in that department along with fellow All-Star Al Horford. But he also needs to make plays and elevate the aforementioned players – and all others – around him. The former Duke standout will now get that chance – whether he wanted it or not.
And he won’t have to worry about how he embraces James, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith after the game until the two teams meet again on Jan. 3.