BOSTON — Just months before his surprising trade request, Kyrie Irving’s former general manager, David Griffin, noted how a younger Irving often desired the “path of least resistance.”
But after six years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the last three alongside LeBron James, Irving yearned for the gantlet.
Kyrie Irving gave an assist to the clear mask he played with Tuesday for helping him find teammates to pass to. “The difference with the black mask is that they’re not getting the ball because I couldn’t see outside of my [direct] eyesight,” he said.
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A four-time All-Star, NBA champion and Olympic gold medalist, Irving seemingly should have been content with the status quo of the NBA’s best player and perennial Eastern Conference favorites. But a man with a growing reputation for bucking conventional wisdom — famously the Earth’s geometry — desired new challenges and new scenery.
Irving didn’t just change teams this summer. He changed his jersey number, he changed his diet, and now he’s trying to change his reputation. Each alteration provides fuel for a player motivated to prove he made the right decision to gamble on himself.
Irving’s Boston Celtics carry a league-best 13-game win streak into Thursday’s visit from the defending champion Golden State Warriors. It’s a matchup some will overzealously dub a potential NBA Finals showdown but, more importantly, it’s a stage for Irving to showcase his evolution.
As Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said before a recent visit to TD Garden: “I think [Kyrie is] on a mission.”
WHEN HIS INTRODUCTORY media conference concluded in late August, a clean-shaven Irving — the beard a casualty of an offseason “Uncle Drew” movie shoot — hopped down from the dais and immediately sought out his father, Drederick, in the crowd.
Irving, a wide smile on his face, held up his jersey, showing his father the No. 11 on the back side, before handing the shirt to him and embracing.
The familiar No. 2 that Irving had worn for Cleveland was retired in Boston for team patriarch Red Auerbach; the No. 1 he sported at Duke was retired for team founder Walter Brown.
Irving settled on No. 11, a nod to his high school digits, but more importantly a tribute to his father, whose No. 11 is just one of seven retired numbers at Boston University.
When Irving made the decision to request a trade away from Cleveland, most questioned his sanity. His father offered much-needed encouragement.
“My best friend right there,” Irving said. “Understanding the relationship that we have, the bonds that we share over the course of my 25-year-old life. It’s pretty awesome to know that they retired his No. 11 at Boston University and I’m continuing that legacy for him and for our family by wearing No. 11 for the Boston Celtics.”
“It just feels like that’s supposed to be my number.”
Exterior changes are one thing, but for Irving, it’s also what’s inside that counts.
Irving was already pondering a dietary overhaul this summer when a documentary, titled “What the Health,” debuted on Netflix. The film investigates the processing of meat and dairy products and puts a particular emphasis on the handling of animals.
Irving, already one to stray from red meat, elected to pursue another challenge: a strict plant-based diet.
“[The film is] really pinpointing the meat industry and how deceptive it is and what it actually does to the human body, and being more in touch with what nature has to offer,” Irving said. “And I wanted to get away from that.”
New team, new diet. And the early results have been impressive.
Irving sits third in the NBA in clutch-time scoring (plus/minus five points in the final five minutes), suggesting little drop off in his energy late in games. In fact, a visibly slimmed down Irving often seems to save his best efforts for what he dubs “winning time.”
“I feel absolutely amazing. My energy, my sleeping patterns, just my intellect and everything that I’m awake to now — I’m very much aware. My awareness is a lot better now that I’m not eating all the GMOs and pesticides and all that they put in our food, man.”
Inside the Celtics’ locker room, bags of plant-based snacks now mingle on the same snack tray where the team typically stocks more common game-night foods like peanut butter and jelly.
Still, there are constant temptations around Irving, like the cheesesteak sandwiches that were waiting at each player’s locker stall after Boston’s first win of the season in Philadelphia last month.
“It’s a commitment to yourself,” Irving said. “I feel like this is the best way for me. I can’t speak for everyone else, but it makes me feel amazing and I absolutely love it.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens might be a wizard with X’s and O’s but he wasn’t sure he could help Irving with nutrition. Stevens had Irving huddle with Dr. Johann Bilsborough, the Celtics’ director of sport science, to game plan meal strategy. Said Stevens: “Our people work hard with him to try to figure out how to help him get what he needs based on how he wants to eat.”
On Tuesday night in Brooklyn, it was the masked Irving with a series of late-game buckets that helped Boston salt away their 13th win of the season. The Celtics are perfectly content with Irving’s choice of diet if he plays like that.
Quipped Stevens: “I know I’ve eaten more vegetables this year so maybe he’s had an impact on me.”
IN THE AFTERMATH of Irving’s request for a trade, a Washington Post headline read, “The one red flag a team trading for Kyrie Irving needs to know.”
The stats-heavy post culminated with this assertion: Kyrie can’t handle the spotlight as the lone star on a contender.
Considering Irving’s struggles in Cleveland without James alongside — the Cavs were a whopping minus-120 in that situation in 2016-17 — this was a fair suggestion. Irving had never truly shown that he could carry a team on his own.
Given a fresh start in Boston, Irving is slowly chipping away at that perception.
As the Celtics’ focal point on offense, Irving’s stat line isn’t as robust as recent seasons — he’s still averaging a team-best 20.6 points per game — but what has been more noticeable has been Irving’s commitment on defense.
He has embraced Stevens’ requests to simply be in the right spots and give maximum effort. It’s translated into Irving averaging a career-best 1.9 steals per game all while his defensive rating has improved 12.7 points from last season’s abysmal 109.1.
Irving ranked 53rd overall last season in ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus and his defensive RPM (minus-2.30) was an eyesore that dragged down a player who ranked 14th overall in the offensive RPM.
Kyrie’s Defensive RPM (last 5 seasons)
This year, Irving ranks 31st overall in RPM and he’s in the positive on both sides of the ball. Among point guards, he’s fourth overall in RPM behind only James Harden, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.
He’ll never be an elite individual defender but that he’s at the forefront of a Celtics defense that is far and away the best in the NBA this season isn’t lost on observers.
Maybe more important than his strong play on the court has been Irving’s leadership off it. There was chatter upon his exit from the Cavaliers about how distant Irving was with teammates at times. In Boston, he’s quickly bonded with many of Boston’s younger players and isn’t afraid to playfully chide teammates like Jaylen Brown or Terry Rozier.
Many nights, Irving has sought out fans at the final buzzer to give away game-worn gear. After Tuesday’s win in Brooklyn, he spotted some soldiers courtside at Barclays Center and gave away his jersey and sneakers.
“Kyrie is great. Kyrie has been really great for us setting the tone, being a great example for our players,” Horford said. “And on the court he’s setting the tone. And off the court it shows what kind of guy he is. To take his time out to do that, I know that made them feel very special.”
Added Stevens: “I’ve had a chance now to know Kyrie for a little bit of a time. … He seems like a really giving person.”
The only thing selfish about Irving lately was his desire to change his situation.
It’s a gamble many young stars wouldn’t dare to take, and it’s paying off so far.