BOSTON — There are certain truths when it comes to the Boston Celtics: The banners will always hang prominently from the Garden rafters, the opponent will always be seeing green, and Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn will always espouse the virtues of the hometown team.
Well, hold on a minute.
Heinsohn, the team’s television analyst who is affectionately known in Boston for being an unabashed homer, departed from this usual stance on an Oct. 20 broadcast when he questioned the conditioning of point guard and franchise player Kyrie Irving. Then, after a win Saturday against the Pistons in Detroit, Heinsohn doubled down, declaring, “[Irving] looks like he’s five pounds overweight, but I haven’t seen him on a scale.”
Irving responded Tuesday night with his most electric performance of the young season, submitting a season-high 31 points in a home win against the Pistons in which he shot 10-of-16 from the field, including 4-of-7 from the 3-point line.
He added five rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes and single-handedly accounted for a scintillating run in the third quarter that turned the tide.
Afterward, in a brief on-court interview with NBC Sports Boston reporter Abby Chin, Irving declared, “I want to give a shout out to my man, Tommy Heinsohn.”
He then abruptly turned and strode off the parquet. Was he being sarcastic? Facetious? Genuinely grateful? Who could be sure? After all, is the world round, or not?
Irving was far more expansive in a postgame locker room interview in which he conceded Heinsohn was right: He needed to be in better shape.
“I caught wind of [his comments] probably like a week ago and it was bothering me, because it was the most honest thing anyone had said about the way I was playing,” Irving said. “I literally had to try to match a level I had been playing at last year but also become better, so how you do that is, I had to really put an emphasis on my body and how I was taking care of my mind. [Heinsohn’s comment] was one of the realest things I could have heard. As a competitor, if that doesn’t itch inside you of wanting to be better, especially from a guy like Tommy Heinsohn, who, you can’t do any wrong in his eyes if you’re a Celtic. … I appreciate that.
“It was the truth. I had to get in better shape, I had to become more dedicated to what I was doing. I was on the bike the next morning doing everything possible to prepare my body.”
Irving is coming off back-to-back knee surgeries that prematurely ended his inaugural season in Boston. Throughout the first six games, he was shooting 24.1 percent from beyond the arc — 39 percent overall — and appeared to be pressing. Coach Brad Stevens cautioned in preseason with would take time for both Irving and Gordon Hayward, who was coming off a serious injury, to regain their footing, and that has been true.
Yet Irving explained some of that struggle has been defining his role on a talent-laden team that he declared in preseason could beat Golden State in a seven-game series. His charge, he said, was “managing the way you start off a season.”
“You try not to put too much pressure on yourself,” Irving said. “I think my focus became not so much on myself, but how do I become a better leader for this team as well as the other leaders we have? If that meant sacrificing a game or two to really emphasize moving the basketball and getting these guys going, then so be it.”
Irving said that even when he wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well, opponents were still guarding him as though he was the guy who hit the biggest shot in Cleveland basketball history to clinch the 2016 NBA championship.
“Some of the film I was watching, some of the shots that I wasn’t taking or even collapsing the defense, they were still there,” he said. “The respect was still there. It wasn’t like anybody was going under my screens or anything like that.”
Although Irving is a five-time All-Star, he spent his last three seasons in Cleveland in the daunting shadow of LeBron James. Now that he’s the lead dog on this Celtics team, he wants to make sure he manages it properly.
“[That means] not getting one-sided,” he said. “Not trying to be too much of a playmaker or too much of a shooter, just trying to find the happy balance of how to fit in with such a unique and special team. It’s not an easy task for anyone.”
And yet Irving made it look easy in the final minutes of the third quarter, when he drilled a 3 from the top of the circle, then came down and nailed a 26-footer from the right side of the floor, then added a 30-foot trey over the outstretched arms of Blake Griffin to send the partisan crowd (and, presumably Heinsohn) into a frenzy. He outscored Detroit 12-5 all on his own to close out that third quarter, staking Boston to a 10-point advantage and basking in renewed chants of “MVP.”
He did so sporting newly shorn locks that, he revealed afterward, aren’t nearly as high maintenance as the dearly departed afro he sported the first few weeks of this season.
“It was just time,” he said. “I had a great run with it. It was a great afro. I’m happy I did it. Time to get back to what I’m used to.”
That sounds good to his coach, who, when asked about Irving’s breakout performance, merely said, “Law of averages.”
It sounds good to his teammates, particularly Aron Baynes, who understands that when Irving knocks down shots, “he becomes a target for the defense, five [pairs of] eyes on him every time he has the ball,” which means someone else is open.
You can be sure it sounds good to Heinsohn too. He might have extracted a pound of flesh from Irving, but now that he knows he bleeds Celtic green, order has been restored.
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