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Irving is embracing the challenge of a starring role in Boston

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Hayward and Irving bring the jokes to Boston (1:26)

Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were introduced to Celtics fans with a news conference that had plenty of laughs. (1:26)

BOSTON -- Gordon Hayward, resplendent in a Boston Celtics-toned green blazer with some subtle Butler blue blended into his tie, had just finished gushing about all the reasons he's excited to be in Boston, name-checking many of his new teammates on the Celtics' overhauled roster. When he was finished, one of those new teammates, Kyrie Irving, seated beside him at their introductory press conference last week at TD Garden, leaned in with a message.

"It's about to be crazy, G," said Irving.

About to be crazy? How, then, might Irving classify the perpetual chaos that was Boston's entire offseason? Boston's 17-man roster will have no fewer than 12 new faces and at least seven players who have never played an NBA game. The team must replace four starters from last year's team that won an East-leading 53 games and advanced to the conference finals.

But there was something powerful about Irving's five-word (and one-letter) interjection. Irving is the new (clean-shaven) face of the Celtics franchise (the beard a casualty of filming a movie this offseason), and his excitement about embracing a new challenge was palpable throughout last week's half-hour hello to his new fan base.

At 25, Irving has already experienced so much: three Finals appearances, one NBA championship, four All-Star excursions and an Olympic gold medal. The former No. 1 overall pick has spent the past three years in the blinding spotlight that comes with playing a supporting role next to LeBron James.

Now, Irving is ready to branch out on his own. But mostly he's eager for a new challenge. Yes, he desires more of the spotlight, but his goal is to show he's capable of leading a championship-caliber team. His full-length "Uncle Drew" movie isn't scheduled to hit theaters until shortly after the 2018 NBA Finals, but Irving has a more immediate opportunity to prove that he's a capable leading man.

Yes, the past six years have been filled with adventures for Irving. But now he's found a new challenge, and it's about to be crazy.


The lingering question for many after the Irving trade drama unfolded this summer was, Why would he be so eager to remove himself from James' shadow? If championships are the most important thing to a player, why ask to be traded from a team that's an overwhelming favorite to reach the title round for a fourth straight season?

"I think it's a little unfair. I think it was more than [getting away from LeBron] is what I'm trying to say," said LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who, along with Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, attended the ABCD Hoop Dreams fundraiser Wednesday night at TD Garden.

Rivers knows Irving well, particularly after his son, Austin, followed Irving's one-and-done path at Duke.

"I don't think Kyrie cared about being in the shadow. I don't think he cared about it being his team. I think that's the way it was portrayed, and I thought that was unfair to him. I've known that kid for a long time, before he went to Duke, and that is not who Kyrie is. I hate when I hear that, because it's not true.

"I think he was unhappy for another reason, but I'll let him figure that one out. But it's not because he was selfish or because he wanted his own time. I think he wanted to go somewhere to play basketball, and be happy playing basketball, and I have no problem with that."

So is Boston the sort of place where Irving can truly blossom?

"This is a perfect situation -- other than L.A.," Rivers joked. "This is a perfect situation for him. The Celtics gave up a lot to get him, but he's 25 years old, and that's the other thing people forget about: He's so young.

"He's going to be a star here for a long time."

That Danny Ainge was willing to push his most-prized chips to the center of the table for Irving should underscore what the team believes Irving is capable of as a leading man.

The Celtics made hard charges at stars like Jimmy Butler and Paul George over the past 18 months, but Ainge was willing to trade an All-NBA point guard (Isaiah Thomas), one of the league's best 3-and-D players on a sweetheart contract (Jae Crowder), a raw but intriguing 7-footer (Ante Zizic), the Brooklyn Nets' unprotected 2018 first-round pick and the Miami Heat's 2020 second-round pick in exchange for Irving.

The Celtics clearly were not overly concerned about the reasons why Irving wanted to leave Cleveland. Heck, they probably like that he'll have a chip on his shoulder in trying to prove to the Cavaliers that he can thrive on his own.

"Listen, I've been around too long to be too surprised or too worried [about players asking for trades]," said Ainge. "Obviously, I talked to a lot of people in [Irving's] circle and the old regime of the Cleveland Cavaliers, so we did a lot of background checks on Kyrie. We had no concerns moving forward as we tried to get him."


Irving was in Atlanta filming when the call came letting him know that Boston and Cleveland had -- after a maddening eight-day hold-up -- finalized their league-shocking trade. Irving exulted with a couple of joyful expletives, then ran off a soundstage to let the moment fully sink in.

"I took a moment outside on the side of the street in Atlanta to watch the cars pass. I took in that moment, because it really meant something," said Irving. "It was the start of something new, and I knew I was going to come in contact with some other great individuals, and we were going to go after something special."

Thirty-six hours after that call, Irving found himself on a dais inside TD Garden. With Hayward and five members of Boston's brain trust beaming alongside, Irving's green Nike hightops tapped with a nervous energy during his Boston unveiling.

"When Boston came a-knockin', I was answering."

Kyrie Irving

In Cleveland, LeBron's words carried a certain heft because of his status as the NBA's best player, and his thoughts on world topics routinely become headline news. With the spotlight finally on Irving, he seemed to want to offer something profound at the start of his news conference.

But after fielding the first question -- Why did he feel he could maximize his potential in Boston? -- Irving rambled for more than a minute, trying to offer sincere words of appreciation to Crowder following the death of his mother on the same day of the trade, and to Thomas for playing in the playoffs after the tragic death of his sister. Irving also tried to touch on the events in Charlottesville and Houston, but it was all a bit disjointed.

He recovered well and, when the focus shifted to basketball, Irving settled in. He needled Ainge about his age (requesting VHS tapes of the Boston title teams of the '80s), deftly tip-toed around his issues in Cleveland (but eventually heaped praise on James) and did his best to explain why he was so eager to take the next step in his basketball evolution.

It was impossible not to notice how relaxed Irving was once he was in the thick of last week's press conference, almost as if a weight had been lifted. Yes, the pressure to perform will increase, but Irving clearly is embracing his new situation.

Irving yearned for a new challenge but found one that comes with obvious perks, like having Stevens as a coach, a strong ownership group that's eager to spend money to compete and a GM bold enough to make the big trade.

For as much as the Celtics sacrificed in order to get Irving, he gave up a bit to facilitate the deal as well. Irving waived his 15 percent trade kicker, essentially sacrificing $5.8 million to aid the completion of the deal.

Said a smiling Irving: "When Boston came a-knockin', I was answering."


By now you've probably seen the stats about how the Cavaliers performed when Irving was on the floor without James over the past three seasons. While Irving's base stats are excellent -- in 2,000 minutes without James, Irving averaged 30.6 points and 6.3 assists per 36 minutes, a line that colleague Tom Haberstroh noted was almost identical to numbers put up by Isaiah Thomas last season -- the Cavaliers were just 4-13 in games that James sat out during that span, and the team's performance was particularly cringeworthy.

The Celtics were not fazed by the numbers and believe Irving can thrive without James. Boston believes it has the complementary talent to accentuate Irving's strengths (and mask some of his deficiencies).

After years of maximizing the talent of players like Jordan Crawford and Evan Turner, Stevens finally has elite talent to work with. Stevens has spent the past two weeks immersed in film, trying to determine how he can best utilize Irving, particularly when paired with players like Hayward and Al Horford.

"Offensively, [Irving is] a really talented guy that's done a lot of things off of a lot of different actions," said Stevens. "He's great off the ball. He's great with the ball. He's great in isolation. I think he's a guy that's going to draw so much attention that it should continue to be great for the guys around him.

"And then, on the other end of the floor, one of the things that I really saw and I think can be a real asset is how strong he is. He's stronger than maybe he would look, and when he checks somebody on the dribble, he does a good job of maintaining his balance and challenging the shot."

Stevens admits he can't be certain how it will all look until the team gets on the floor later this month for the start of training camp. He's eager to see the benefits of having two players capable of creating off the dribble in Irving and Hayward. Defenses swarmed Thomas the past two seasons knowing no one else on the team was consistently capable of creating his own shot.

But there are so many new faces on the roster, and younger players must step up to fill noticeable voids. Stevens knows Boston's success isn't just on Irving.

"Obviously, the more that we get a chance to work together, spend time together, the more [Irving will] understand our team strengths, the more I'll understand our team strengths," said Stevens. "But it's all going to be about how everybody embraces their role, 1-to-15, and how we bring the best out of each other.

"I thought Kyrie said it best: 'It's not going to be about one guy when you're competing for what we're trying to compete for.'"