Kyrie Irving's pregame ritual ahead of the Brooklyn Nets' preseason contest against the Boston Celtics made headlines.
The All-Star guard smudged the perimeter of the TD Garden floor with sage prior to warming up for the first meeting against his former team in an attempt to cleanse any and all bad energy remaining from his time in Boston.
"It comes from a lot of native tribes, being able to sage, just cleanse the energy, make sure that we're all balanced," Irving, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe by way of his mother's heritage, told the media after the game.
Kyrie is back in Boston, burning sage before the Nets face the Celtics:- SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 18, 2020
Even the biggest Boston fan would be naive to tell you that a change in energy between the star guard and the city wasn't necessary after the two-season rollercoaster that was the Kyrie Irving-Celtics experience.
When Boston traded the beloved Isaiah Thomas and a first-round pick, among other assets, to the Cleveland Cavaliers to acquire Irving just before the start of the 2017-18 season, it sent the NBA world into a frenzy. It was clear Irving was done playing wingman to LeBron James and wanted to try and lead his own team to a championship. At the time, the Celtics made perfect sense.
Boston had just signed an All-Star forward in Gordon Hayward to add to their core that featured an established starter in Al Horford, two young and promising top-three picks in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and another lottery pick in Marcus Smart. It was clear the front office was trying to take a swing for the fences at a league-leading 18th NBA title, and trading for Irving - a four-time All-Star and NBA champion entering the prime of his career at 24 years old - seemed like a match made in heaven.
Or so we thought.
Things never developed the way they were expected to. When Hayward went down with a gruesome leg injury in the very first game of the season, that completely altered the team's plan of action. Now down an All-Star for the entire first season of this experiment, even more pressure resided with Irving to step up and be the guy. And Irving stepped up to the plate in his first season in Boston, but season-ending knee surgery just weeks before the start of his first playoff run with the Celtics derailed any momentum of him trying to lead his own team to a title.
Then, something that at the time was considered as invaluable experience for the young Boston roster ended up being detrimental to the team's immediate future. Led by the trio of a rookie Tatum, Brown and Terry Rozier (who filled Irving's spot as a starter), the Celtics made an unexpected playoff push, falling in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, nearly knocking off LeBron's seven-year run to the NBA Finals.
The talk of Boston's offseason was centred around two things: the hopes of an Irving contract extension with only a player option remaining on his current deal and how unstoppable the team that came one game away from reaching The Finals would be once their two All-Stars are back in the lineup.
Addressing the first part, Irving toyed with the Celtics fan base prior to the start of the season, first with his quote on Fan Night at the TD Garden in which he stated, "If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here." Secondly, it was the Nike commercial playing 1-on-1 against his father on the TD Garden floor that concluded with Irving stating, "He's the reason I wear No. 11, I want to be the reason no one else will," hinting at having his jersey retired in Boston.
Both of those things rubbed the city the wrong way when Irving failed to sign the dotted line on an extension prior to the first game of the season and it was a question that lingered over the team and locker room all season long.
As for how unstoppable the team would be with Irving and Hayward back in the lineup ... the Celtics learned how to stop themselves before other teams had to figure it out.
After the 2018 playoffs, it was clear Tatum and Brown were the future of the franchise and that Rozier was a starting-calibre NBA point guard. Smart, Horford and Marcus Morris were also productive during the deep postseason run, and they were all forced to take a back seat on the offensive end with an influx of talent. That's where the "invaluable experience" turned detrimental for this version of Boston's roster.
The Celtics ran a "your turn, my turn" offence the entire season, failing to click on either end of the floor to reach the astronomical expectations set for them. When they were bounced out of the playoffs in the second round, completely overmatched by the Milwaukee Bucks team they beat in the playoffs the season prior, it was clear Irving's time in Boston was coming to an end.
We had to wait more than one full season to see Irving square up with his former team as a member of the Nets. Only appearing in 20 games in his first year in Brooklyn due to a shoulder injury, Irving missed all meetings with the Celtics, including both matchups in front of an eager Boston crowd.
For a player that was deemed a cancer in the locker room by the general public, it sure didn't appear that way when Irving met his former teammates on the court for the first time since his departure.
Reflecting on Irving burning sage around the TD Garden court ahead of the Nets preseason meeting with the Celtics, it's symbolic.
The change in energy is necessary because Irving was (and is) shunned by the Celtics fan base for leaving Boston when really, it was a mutually beneficial decision for both parties.
With Irving moving on, we're watching Tatum grow into a potential MVP candidate at the same time as Brown has begun to blossom into an All-Star-calibre player. With the Nets, Irving has the opportunity to play alongside another often misunderstood player in Kevin Durant as they both pursue a prove-people-wrong-type championship.
"We're just young kings growing in a business where we want to do what makes us happy," Irving said after Brooklyn's preseason win over the Celtics. "To see Jayson get better, to see Jaylen get better, to see these guys mature and be in the positions they're in, I'm nothing but proud of them."
It seems like an eternity ago, the last time Irving was in a Boston uniform. All that has happened since then only makes it feel further back in the past.
When he and Durant face off against Tatum and Brown on Christmas Day in an empty TD Garden, Irving's chaotic time in Boston will be the topic of conversation. That won't be easy to ignore, but try and soak in the matchup with a feeling of the new energy that hovers over the parquet.
That new energy is a healthy restart of an old NBA rivalry as the Celtics and Nets are expected to be among the top teams in their conference, fighting to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
That new energy is appreciating a battle between two established superstars and two rising superstars on the biggest regular-season stage the NBA has to offer.
That new energy is shining a light on the fact that Irving's decision to take his talents elsewhere ended up being the best possible outcome for both himself and his former franchise.
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