Kyrie Irving, down 3-1 again, returns to Boston for his ultimate test

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) passes the ball against the Boston Celtics during the third quarter during game four of the 2024 NBA Finals Friday,at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. (Peter Casey/USA TODAY Sports)

DALLAS — The last time we saw Kyrie Irving in Boston, he was agitated walking off the court, strutting with determination.

Clearly bothered — either by his performance, or the Game 2 loss, or the verbal and visual taunts hurled his way, or all of the above — Irving confined his retort for the jeering Celtics fans to a hand gesture. This time, he flashed all five digits, a proclamation he’d be back for Game 5.


If any of what we’ve heard from Irving is to be believed, his embrace of spiritual development and appreciation for the fullness of journeys, he was doing more than predicting Dallas would win a game at home. He was promising to plant that moment in his psyche, let it blossom and return with something special for the Celtics.

Now the Dallas Mavericks’ season, essentially, rests on his ability to deliver on that promise. That he would grow, and his team with him. And the Boston that hates him so would have to deal with him.

“That’s what we’ve been talking about, too, since the beginning of the series,” Irving said. “Our growth. Us trending in the right direction, figuring out how we get wins together as a group with all those external factors still going on. How do you still lock in? How do you still focus in, breathe through some of those mistakes?”

Perhaps the former life of Kyrie is talking. Whispering. Through a familiar breeze or a consuming calm. Maybe, despite his dogged attempts to nail his past to yesteryear, he even recognizes the familiarity. The desperation. The peace of having nothing to lose. The craving to mock inevitability.

His Mavericks — having avoided the humiliation of a sweep Friday by obliterating the Celtics, 122-84 — head to Boston for an expected coronation in Game 5.

In 2016, Irving’s Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and heading back to Oakland. The series was done. The Golden State Warriors’ next win was but a formality, a finishing touch to the greatest season ever pulled off in the NBA. But Irving had 41 points and 6 assists, completing a devastating one-two combo with his legendary teammate, LeBron James. The Cavs’ proverbial execution stayed.

The following year, Irving’s Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the NBA Finals and heading back to Oakland. The remaining game, again, was presumed ceremonial. But Irving had no heroics in him: 26 points on 22 shots, 6 assists and 4 turnovers. He was but a pebble hitting the windshield of the Warriors’ juggernaut.

“We understand we’re going against the same great Boston team,” Irving said. “That is going to make it tough. We’re going into their home den. We have another opportunity to extend the season. That’s all we can ask for. … The job is still an uphill battle, and we understand that.”

It’s hard to tell if Irving is lavishing praise on these Celtics out of humility earned from 2017 or veiled confidence accrued from 2016 winking at the moment. It’s perhaps both with the one they call Kai, the matured point guard who finds harmony in the balance of both.

Fittingly, the answer to what suspense remains in this series hinges on how well Irving manages the emotions of this moment.

Once again, his team is down 3-1, staring up at the mountain of another team’s destiny, next to an all-world forward who needs his sidekick to be spectacular. The Mavericks can put a scare into the pending champions, threaten to effigiate the Celtics in history as the only team to blow a 3-0 lead. But such requires Irving to conjure his best version.

The last time we saw Irving in Boston, he didn’t look like himself. He was agitated. It was more than his 28 points on 37 shots over Games 1 and 2. His aura of certainty was missing. He was passive, hesitant. He looked overwhelmed.

The emotion of his contentious history with Boston seemed to have him in a space we hadn’t seen in a while. Not since he’s been revitalized in Dallas and found his voice as a leader and source of positive vibes. That Celtic green may as well have been kryptonite. Being back in that environment, inhaling the vitriol in Boston’s air, weakened Irving. His spirit clearly tested. His magnificence compromised.

It’s every bit natural for the history between Irving and the Celtics to flare up when concocted along with the pressure of the NBA Finals. Kyrie often talks about the humanness of players, a reminder they aren’t robots hardwired exclusively to perform. They feel. They experience. They process and react. Their gazillions of dollars don’t turn off their neuromodulators.

And Irving, unless our eyes deceived us, was human in Boston.

The relentlessness of Boston’s wings is daunting enough. Combined with the emotions of that past life revisited, the smothering presence of rabid Celtics pride stalking him like bad decisions, it produced an Uncle Drew imposter.

But he found himself in Dallas, a microcosm of his career. Coming to Texas settled him. He was Kyrie again. He found his rhythm and aggressiveness in Game 3 and continued that mentality in Game 4. They need too much from him, but his attacking in the first quarter (seven shots) was part of the ripple that became a tidal wave over the Celtics on Friday.

“When you want something so bad, you can press,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “You can want it so bad it tends to get farther and farther away. So, I think for him, I just told him to just go slow on this and good things will happen.”

Sage advice.

He’s maintained he isn’t the same Kyrie who wore Celtic green, or returned as a Brooklyn Net in the 2021 playoffs. He confesses he wasn’t the ideal face-of-franchise figure when he left Cleveland for Boston in 2017. But Dallas needs his progress to be expeditious this time.

Did Kyrie solve enough, learn enough, to better handle another return to Boston? Has the man in the Organic Negrow cap harvested enough wisdom from the last experience, and positive energy from Dallas, to go back into Boston and be the sensational version of himself?

The vocal cords of Boston’s crowd figure to be even more violent with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the building, with the Celtics’ return to supremacy on the table. If Kyrie has cleared this latest hurdle, the chances of Dallas extending this series will increase dramatically. If having lived through it, felt it and processed it allows him to play in that special free-flowing style of his, maybe the talk of the Mavericks doing what no team has done before gets a little life.

If anyone can put together a game for the ages and shift the pressure over to the inevitable juggernaut, it’s Kyrie Irving. He’s been here before.

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