WALTHAM, Mass. — While Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving has gone out of his way to downplay his impending return to Cleveland on opening night to face his former team, he’s eager to gush about his new home and how Boston has thus far exceeded his expectations.
Irving, who was traded to Boston this summer in a deal that sent Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and draft picks to the Cavaliers, has acknowledged the hype surrounding his return to Cleveland, but he has often dismissed questions about it by noting that his sole focus is on playing well with his new team.
Amid all the questions about Cleveland in recent days, Irving told ESPN that his first seven weeks in Boston have given him new energy.
“It’s been a lot more than I expected because, even though you hear so much about the Boston Celtics, you can only really truly understand if you’re blessed enough to throw on a Boston jersey and be enriched in the culture,” said Irving. “Just look at the banners around [the team’s practice facility], man. This is every single day we understand what the tradition and culture was built here and what we’re trying to uphold, and what we’re trying to accomplish as the current Boston Celtics players.
“It’s a high price, and it’s high expectations, but it’s well worth it. It’s so exciting to see just the amount of culture that’s here, man. That’s what I’m more excited about. I feel it, I know it. I know I’ve only been here for a short amount of time, but the reception has been awesome, in terms of me getting traded here and seeing everybody here and all the fans and how excited they are for the season to get started.”
Since Boston finished off a perfect 4-0 preseason, Irving has been peppered with questions about opening the regular season in Cleveland. On Sunday, he shrugged off the most recent batch of queries while noting, “It’s just hoops, man. Just hoops.”
Irving, who spent his first six seasons in the NBA with the Cavaliers, has said he’s excited to see familiar faces back in Cleveland, but he doesn’t want to get swept up in the hype.
“The excitement and the energy is there, but I think everything extra has been created by outside influence,” said Irving. “So that’s neither here nor there. I don’t know what that reality is. I don’t necessarily concern myself with that because, if I do, I’d really be doing myself a disservice and my teammates a disservice of trying to figure out whether or not I want to give some distractions or specific people energy in terms of what they’re saying or what they think about what’s going on.
“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion. I respect it. But it’s my job to go out there and be the best I can be for my teammates and ultimately try to win every single game and put myself and my teammates in a great position to win. It’s going to happen regardless. That’s just the nature of the business. I understand that. But that reality, I leave that for other people.”
Irving’s new teammates have acknowledged his unique situation, being forced to play his former team on opening night, and they seem eager to help pick him up.
“It’s a huge game for Kyrie, and I think one we’re all looking to play our best for him, not only for the team but for him,” said Gordon Hayward, Boston’s other offseason All-Star acquisition. “We know it’s a big game for him.”
Al Horford, who signed with Boston in the summer of 2016 after nine seasons in Atlanta, said he would likely chat with Irving about what it’s like to go back home.
“Kyrie is really approaching this like, I feel like, any other game,” said Horford. “He’s really locked in, he understands what we need to do, as far as our group. He’s been very focused on us and what we need to do.”
Asked about the changes the Cavaliers made this offseason, Irving acknowledged some of the talent that Cleveland has added around their remaining core.
“They have different pieces, obviously. There’s just one guy missing. That’s it,” said Irving. “They added a lot of other great pieces they have on their team. And they’re running some similar things. But the playmaking as well that they have, that they utilize now, whether [LeBron James is] on the ball or whether Bron’s off the ball, they’ve got a point guard in [Derrick] Rose and a veteran in Jose Calderon, then of course guys coming off the bench. And, defense, raising the level of awareness out there, I mean, they have Jae Crowder at the 4 and Kevin Love at the 5. So that right there is a different framework than what I saw last year. So we’ve just got to get used to it.”
Irving admitted that his familiarity with the Cavaliers might not necessarily give him an advantage on opening night.
“It’s a give and take. I know a lot about them, they know a lot about me,” said Irving. “I’m looking forward to the challenge because now you’ve just gotta really think the game on your feet out there. And I know we’ve got a great coaching staff that are committed to preparing us.”