For the first time since leaving the Celtics during the summer of 2019, Kyrie Irving is returning to the TD Garden and will play in front of fans.
During the 2019-20 season with the Nets, Irving was inactive for both of the games he played in Boston, as he dealt with a shoulder injury that plagued him throughout the year. This year, he played the Nets’ lone New England road game on Christmas Day, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans in attendance at the game.
Now, Irving will finally get to play in front of an arena full of Celtics fans in Games 3 and 4 of the series. On Friday, he’ll play in front of a stadium at 25 percent capacity. After that, it can expand to 100 percent, as the state of Massachusetts lifts its COVID restrictions.
Irving will surely be booed heartily in his return to Boston after the way that he exited the team.
But why exactly did Irving leave the Celtics? And why did Boston fans take his departure so hard? Here’s everything you need to know about Irving’s tumultuous final year with the Celtics.
Why did Kyrie Irving leave the Celtics for the Nets?
Irving left the Celtics because he wanted to return closer to his New Jersey home. He confirmed as much in his 2019 media day availability with the Nets, and his decision to leave was influenced by the passing of his grandfather early in the 2018-19 NBA season.
“After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind,” Irving said. “A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me. There was a facial expression that I carried around with me throughout the year. Didn’t allow anyone to get close to me in that instance, and it really bothered me.
“I didn’t take the necessary steps to get counseling or get therapy or anything to deal with someone that close to me dying. I’ve never dealt with anything like that, so, for me, I responded in ways that were uncharacteristic, and I had to acknowledge that fact.”
Irving did talk to the Celtics about the issue and he expressed a desire to re-sign. However, after reflecting more on his grandfather’s death and how basketball prevented Irving from seeing him before his passing, his thought process started to shift.
“I talked to Danny [Ainge] and I wanted to re-sign. So throughout the year, it started becoming more and more clear that my relationship within my home life had a way higher precedence than the organization or anyone,” Irving said.
“Throughout that year, [things] just became rocky and a lot of the battles I thought I could battle through from that team environment, I just wasn’t ready for. I failed those guys in a sense that I didn’t give them everything that I could have during that season, especially with the pieces that we had.”
After the disappointing season, Irving made the exit that he had been building to and went to play for the Nets. That allowed him an opportunity to play closer to home and also gave him the luxury of playing alongside Kevin Durant, who also signed with Brooklyn. It also paired him with another veteran leader that had a history of championship-level success.
That took some of the pressure that he “just wasn’t ready for” off the table.
Timeline of Kyrie Irving’s departure from the Celtics
Before Irving’s final season in Boston, he committed to remaining with the team at an Oct. 4 preseason fan event.
“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here,” Irving said to the Boston crowd, per NBA.com.
The next day, Irving continued to praise the Celtics for “taking a chance” on him and that he enjoyed playing in Boston.
“I’m happy here,” Irving said, per ESPN. “Every single day is at an all-time competitive high. What more can you ask for from an organization than taking a chance as far as getting me out of Cleveland? Really taking a chance regardless of whether I signed back or not.”
“They had the same attitude. They just wanted to show me what being a Celtic is about, and that I was going to come around, and I absolutely did. I believe in it. I believe in the franchise.”
And then, Irving commented that he wanted to see his jersey in the TD Garden rafters one day along with the retired numbers of other Celtics greats.
“I have every intention of signing with Boston next year. I do have a dream of putting my No. 11 in the rafters one day if I’m so blessed to do that,” Irving said, per NBC Sports Boston. “I’ve worked my tail off, obviously a lot of great players have come before me, but to throw my name in Boston Celtics tradition and history is something I’m glad I can do. And I’m planning on doing so.”
However, as the season went along, there appeared to be growing tension within the Celtics team and frustration on Irving’s part. That came to a head after a Jan. 2019 game against the Magic after Gordon Hayward gave a late-game inbounds pass to Jayson Tatum to try to let the then-rookie win the game. Irving didn’t take kindly to that and screamed at Hayward after the play.
Irving apparently wanted a chance at the last shot, or at least to touch the ball. And after the Celtics’ loss, he spoke about the team’s lack of experience and how he differed from his teammates.
“The best thing I can say is experience, we’re lacking it and because of that we have a lot of learning to do, so we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. You know, it gets tough. When it gets hard, you have to think. You have to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You have to be able to play through the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on and hold your head high when you make mistakes,” Irving said, per WEEI. “When your job is called upon, you have to do it to the best of your ability. You have to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there.
“You have to appreciate to be out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against, it matters the type of preparation you have — what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are a lot of things that I don’t think that some of my teammates have faced just every single day. It’s not easy to be great.”
Shortly thereafter, Irving walked back on his desire to rejoin the Celtics. Per NBC Sports Boston, here’s what he said on Feb. 1, 2019, three weeks after the Orlando game.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s best for my career,” Irving said. “I spent the last eight years trying to do what everyone else wanted me to do — managers, other personnel — and I don’t owe anybody s—.
“I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of pieces. That’s what excited me at the beginning of the season.”
“… It’s my decision at the end of the day. Who cares who said what’s best for him, like, it doesn’t matter. It’s unwarranted commentary, and of course it’s going to continue throughout the season. I’m aware of that. I’m a professional, I’m not going to disrespect anybody but like I said, it really comes down to what’s best for me and my family.”
That comment was marked a major shift in Irving’s tenor and seemed to indicate that he was thinking about — if not, planning to — leave the Celtics.
Later that month at the NBA All-Star Game, Irving had a discussion with Kevin Durant, who was then on the Warriors. There was plenty of speculation about what the two were discussing — perhaps a team up in Brooklyn — but after being asked about it, Irving said that he was merely talking to one of his best friends.
“I don’t have a private life when I’m out there in the NBA,” Irving said, per The Boston Globe. “Somebody wants to take a video, it is what it is. Pour water on [the speculation]? I’m a human being talking to another best friend of mine. It’s just crazy.
“This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league by doing [expletive] like that. Just fictitious, putting things on like what we’re talking about, it’s crazy. I guess that’s what you want, huh?”
Irving’s future remained in doubt for the rest of the season. The Celtics continued to stumble along until the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Bucks. Irving shot 25-for-83 over their final four games of the season against Milwaukee, each losses, and that marked the end of the season.
Then, of course, Irving signed with the Nets in free agency and completed an exit that went from improbable to expected in a matter of months.
What did the Celtics trade for Kyrie Irving?
The Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers on Aug. 30, 2017, in a four-player deal. Boston sent three players and three draft picks to get the All-Star point guard.
Here’s a look at the details of the trade:
- PG Isaiah Thomas
- SF/PF Jae Crowder
- C Ante Zizic
- 2018 first-round draft pick (Nets)
- Two 2020 second-round picks
That first-round pick that the Cavaliers acquired became point guard Collin Sexton, who averaged 24.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game this year for the Cavaliers.
The original framework of the deal had only one second-round pick going Cleveland’s way, but after they came away from Isaiah Thomas’ physical discouraged with what it showed, Boston agreed to send another pick their way. Thomas had suffered a hip injury the previous season and had surgery to repair the issue.