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News / Sports / National Sports

Reflective side of Kyrie Irving has been front and center in run to NBA Finals with Mavs

Former No. 1 overall pick now healthier, happier

Published: June 4, 2024, 7:09pm
4 Photos
Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving holds the Western Conference Trophy after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in the NBA basketball playoffs against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. The Mavericks won 124-103, taking the series 4-1 and moving on to the NBA Finals.
Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving holds the Western Conference Trophy after Game 5 of the Western Conference finals in the NBA basketball playoffs against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Thursday, May 30, 2024, in Minneapolis. The Mavericks won 124-103, taking the series 4-1 and moving on to the NBA Finals. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr) Photo Gallery

DALLAS — Kyrie Irving directed obscene gestures and profanity at a hostile crowd in Boston the last time the star Dallas guard saw the Celtics, one of his former teams, in the playoffs two years ago.

It was one tumultuous moment of many in a tension-filled tenure with Brooklyn that ended with his trade to the Mavericks about 10 months later.

Healthier and happier, as he likes to say, Irving is back on the biggest stage in his sport with the Mavs set to face the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals starting Thursday night.

Throughout the deepest playoff run for Dallas in 13 years, the reflective side of Irving has surfaced frequently, stopping short of mea culpas but making clear he’s learned a lot along the way.

“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 and everyone saw me flip off the birds and kind of lose my (stuff) a little bit — that wasn’t a great reflection of who I am and how I like to compete on a high level,” Irving said.

“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.”

Before jilting Boston fans by signing with the Nets and joining Kevin Durant in free agency in 2019, Irving was already a polarizing player.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated, which meant he couldn’t play home games for Brooklyn because of New York City’s vaccine mandate for employees.

Next was Irving’s social media post of a link to a movie containing antisemitic material, which led to a suspension from the Nets and the end of his longtime business relationship with Nike.

Ultimately, Irving asked out of Brooklyn, and he and Durant were traded days apart last year, giving Irving a new co-star in Mavs point guard Luka Doncic.

The former No. 1 overall pick out of Duke had never been anywhere near Texas in his career but was greeted by two familiar faces. Mavs general manager Nico Harrison used to work for Nike, and coach Jason Kidd was the point guard of the then-New Jersey Nets when Irving was growing up in that area.

Irving caught up with the team in Los Angeles after the trade, and the Mavericks won their first two games with him.

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“You could see the smile,” Kidd said. “You could see the relief, or you could see that he was ready to have fun and play the game that he loves.”

The partial season together didn’t work out for Irving and Doncic. Dallas missed the playoffs. The first full season together was what the Mavs expected when they pulled off Harrison’s first blockbuster trade.

A late-season surge lifted the Mavs to fifth in the West, although they’ve been the lower seed throughout these playoffs.

Dallas beat the Los Angeles Clippers in six games in the first round, ousting Tyronn Lue, Irving’s coach from his championship season alongside LeBron James in Cleveland in 2016.

“He’s very, very patient,” Lue said after that series of the difference between the Irving he coached and today’s version. “You couldn’t get this Kyrie when I had him. He wants to kill you every moment, every second. But now you can see, he’s just letting the game come to him.”

The Mavs beat top-seeded Oklahoma City in six games before knocking out No. 3 Minnesota in five games in the Western Conference finals, the clincher giving Dallas a five-game road winning streak in the playoffs.

“I feel like it’s a great chapter that’s being written right now,” Irving said. “I’m enjoying every step of the way. I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m enjoying the hot weather right now. I’m enjoying the Dallas community. We talked about this early in the season, just how much I felt embraced.”

Irving went on to say it went deeper than that, reminding reporters of an entire career spent in the other conference.

“Seasonal depression is real when you’re growing up in the north,” Irving said. “I spent 12 years in the Eastern Conference in three cold cities that deal with four seasons. So you come out here and you’re able to get outside and ground yourself a little bit more and spend some time with your family. Watch your kids run outside.”

Irving and Doncic have at least another season together. Irving has a player option for 2025-26, Doncic for the season after that.

Kidd believes a preseason trip to Madrid, where Doncic grew as a teenaged pro in the EuroLeague, helped the two superstars bond.

Now, winning is cementing that bond, one of the most poignant moments for the pair coming in the final seconds of Game 3 against the Timberwolves, after the Mavs knew they had clinched a 3-0 lead.

“When we were winning by nine on that last possession, I told (Irving), ‘I’m tired,’ and he told me, ‘That’s the way it’s supposed to be,’” Doncic said. “He brought the calmness to the team and to me. He brought the maturity. I’m learning from him every day.”

There might not have been many teammates lining up to say those things in Irving’s first three stops, and the magnitude looms larger with the words coming from the face of the Dallas franchise.

Even though his relationships with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and some of his other former Boston teammates are fine, Irving believes he is a better teammate now than he was then.

“The greatest thing I learned from Boston was just being able to manage not only my emotions, but just what’s going on on a day-to-day basis of being a leader of a team or being one of the leaders and having young guys around you that have their own goals,” Irving said. “You have to learn how to put the big picture first.”

A more introspective Irving is on the big stage again, and knows what’s coming from the crowd in Boston.