BOSTON — Celtics guard Kyrie Irving said that in the wake of his outbursts at coach Brad Stevens and forward Gordon Hayward on the court at the end of Saturday’s loss at the Orlando Magic, and pointed criticisms of Boston’s young players afterward, he called LeBron James and apologized for the way he handled criticism from James when the two were teammates in Cleveland.
“Obviously, this was a big deal for me, because I had to call [LeBron] and tell him I apologized for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips, and I wanted everything at my threshold,” Irving said after scoring 27 points and dishing out a career-high 18 assists in Boston’s 117-108 home victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night. “I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that, and the responsibility of being the best in the world and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people.
“[LeBron] was one of those guys who came to Cleveland and tried to show us how to win a championship, and it was hard for him, and sometimes getting the most out of the group is not the easiest thing in the world.”
Saturday’s discontent was the latest in a series of situations this season in which Irving has called out the team’s young players, in some form or fashion, for their play. As Boston has struggled to live up to its preseason expectations — after Wednesday’s win, the Celtics are now 26-18 and remain in fifth place in the Eastern Conference standings — Irving has repeatedly cited the team’s youth and inexperience as something Boston needs to work through to get where it needs to go.
The combination of Irving being frustrated with the play Stevens called with Boston trailing by two in the final seconds of Saturday’s loss, his reaction when Hayward passed the ball to Jayson Tatum instead and Tatum missed the final shot, and the things he said after the game, though, created a firestorm that lasted through the weekend.
“Experience,” Irving told reporters after Saturday’s loss. “We’re lacking it, and because of that, we have a lot of learning to do.”
Irving apologized for the comments Monday, but then he didn’t play because of a quad injury as the Celtics lost in Brooklyn to the Nets. After that game, one of the team’s young players, Jaylen Brown, repeatedly referred to Irving’s comments, saying the Celtics “can’t be pointing fingers,” and that, “It starts from the top to the bottom, not the bottom to the top.”
For his part, Irving said Brown was right, and Irving apologized for saying what he did in a public forum.
“I did a poor job of setting an example for these guys of what it’s like to get something out of your teammates,” Irving said. “You go and you say something publicly and it ends up received in so many different ways and you never know how fragile or what guys are going through when you say things like that. You’re expecting results, but at the same time, I should’ve kept it in house. Going forward, I want to test these young guys, but I can’t be a bully like that. I want to get the best out of them, but I can’t do it personally like that. That was a learning experience for me of being in this position of really realizing the magnitude of my voice and what I really mean to these guys. I want to see them do well and do that where I empowered them.
“It takes a real man to go back, call somebody and be like, ‘Hey, man, I was young. I made some mistakes, I wasn’t seeing the big picture like you were. I didn’t have the end of the season in mind.'”
Kyrie Irving on apologizing to LeBron James
“[Jaylen] was right. I gotta do the right things and not point fingers at individuals and really realize what we can do as group, despite when we go on the road or the mishaps we may have. I’ve been there to the championship. I’ve tasted it. But I can’t expect that they’re gonna get it. I’m just really working on my patience and just coming to helping these guys realize that we can do it against the best teams; but in order to be that championship-level team, we gotta do that every single day to help our team prove to not just the Raptors or Golden State that we can play with them, but we gotta prove it to every team that we can really play with them.”
One of the ironies of the comments Irving has made publicly at times — and the friction that has flared up with the team’s young players because of it — is that it has been reminiscent of the way Irving would occasionally bristle at the things James would say about him after James’ return to Cleveland in 2014.
James, who had won a pair of titles and reached four NBA Finals in his four years with the Miami Heat, came back to Cleveland to team up with Irving and Kevin Love — a pair of young stars who, before playing alongside James, hadn’t played in a single playoff game.
And at times, Irving was none too pleased with the way James spoke about it.
But in thinking about how things transpired Saturday, Irving said he was moved to call James to talk about what happened, and about how, with the benefit of hindsight, he has a far better appreciation for what James was trying to do back then.
“Like I said, only few are meant for it or chosen for it, and I feel like the best person to call was him, because he’s been in this situation,” Irving said. “He’s been there with me. I’ve been the young guy, being a 22-year-old kid and I want everything. I want everything right now. Coming off an All-Star year starting and this heck of a presence is coming back and now I gotta adjust my game to this guy.
“You take it personal, but at the end of the day, he wants what’s best. And he has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture. So, I think what that brought me back to was like, all right, how do I get the best out of this group to the success they had last year and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship.”
Part of Irving’s desire to seek a trade from the Cavaliers in the summer of 2017 — a process that eventually led to him being traded to Boston several weeks later — was to be in the same position James had in Cleveland, as the undisputed leader of a championship team.
Irving looked the part on the court Wednesday night, helping break a tie at 106 late in the fourth quarter with an 11-0 Celtics run that included a turnaround jumper, a 3-pointer and assists on two baskets by Al Horford and another by Tatum to put away the game.
Irving admitted, however, that he’s still trying to come to grips with the rest of the responsibilities that come with the role — and that there was no one who was better for him to reach out to for help than James, based on everything the two of them have been through in the past.
“Being in this position is something new for me,” Irving said. “So I take it with a grain of salt and I just enjoy all of this. So having that moment to be able to call a guy like that where we’ve been through so much, where we won a championship together … it took a lot.
“Now I’m in this position; I asked for this and I want this. I want the responsibility. And I take it on full force. But it’s also good to reach out for help and really take responsibility for what you’ve done in your career. It takes a real man to go back, call somebody and be like, ‘Hey, man, I was young. I made some mistakes, I wasn’t seeing the big picture like you were. I didn’t have the end of the season in mind.’ I just wanted to get my stats and make All-Star Games, which in his career means like this much at that point. So it was just good, and it gave me a peace of mind to go about what I’ve gotta go do. Obviously, I’m going to be competing against him the best and everybody else in the league. But it was good.”