Is Kyrie Irving Regretting Leaving LeBron? Celtics Career Is Off to a Difficult Start

The 2017-18 season is two games old, and the Boston Celtics have lost both of theirs. One road game, against the team they have designs on usurping this year. One at the TD Garden on Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, when Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 37 points and looked something like the M.V.P. they think he can be in Wisconsin.

Let’s say there have been easier starts to a regular season for a team, and a marquee new player, to deal with. As in the loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on Tuesday, when Gordon Hayward fractured his tibia and dislocated his ankle, horribly, five minutes into the game, Wednesday seemed to be more about Hayward than any action on the court—rightly and understandably so. Hayward sent a video message from his hospital bed before the game that was broadcast on the big screen during the team introductions. "It's hurting me that I can't be there," Hayward, who is expected to miss the rest of the season, said.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that amid the emotion and the personnel difficulties caused by Hayward’s absence, Kyrie Irving’s start to his Celtics career has been an intermittently fizzling one. Irving missed a three-pointer at the end of the Celtics’ opening-night defeat in northeast Ohio that would have tied the game. He did, though, put up 22 points with ten assists, four rebounds and three steals. Against the Bucks, he went 7-for-25 shooting and just 2-for-7 on three-pointers. The assists were down—three of them on the night—though he managed four rebounds and three steals again. "Really hard game for a guy [Irving] to have to play in, especially the first game of the season," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said after the defeat to the Cavaliers in quotes reported by Bleacher Report. "All the emotions that go through it, how he can play at that level is beyond me."

That same piece neatly illustrates how the Celtics are going to have to struggle to work around Hayward’s absence. “With the Celtics, Hayward was essentially another version of [LeBron] James, a 6'8" small forward with strong handles. Irving theoretically could have continued his shoot-first, pass-second approach,” Bleacher Report notes. Irving wanted to be the guy in Boston but that may have been more of a metaphor. Suddenly it seems more literal—the guy is going to have to take charge of distribution and scoring, and make sure his defense is up to scratch. Thirty-point, ten-assist games are going to have to become if not a norm then certainly not an irregular occurrence from Irving if the Celtics are not going to feel Hayward’s absence too sorely.

Irving’s motivation for demanding the blockbuster trade of the summer of 2017 was to lead a team—and to show that those blockbuster performances during his championship-contending years with the Cavaliers were because of his own will and talent and not because of the generational talent of James playing beside him. Hayward’s terrible misfortune—and the Celtics’ subsequent 0-2 hole—have given Irving an earlier-than-expected opportunity to prove his own transcendence.

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