As Boston fans boo Kyrie Irving, Celtics try to leave past behind for a brighter future

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BOSTON — Some people can’t let go of the past. Even when everything turns out all right, it can be hard to let go of a grudge.

If you were watching the Celtics cruise past the Mavs 138-110 Friday night for an NBA season-best 10th consecutive win, you couldn’t miss the familiar resentment in the air. There is still a grudge living in that building.

Kyrie Irving was back in town and so were the boos.

Even after all these years, that beef between Boston and Irving is still going. Time heals all wounds, unless you stomp on the logo at half-court.

But Irving still embraces the way they channel the competitive spirit into vitriol straight in his direction. He fought against it for so long, especially when fans would cross lines like throwing water bottles at him or using excessively demeaning insults and curse words. But now he seems at peace with it.

“It’s been six years, you gotta love it. But rightfully so, they have a right to boo,” Irving said. “For my career record for the last few games, I haven’t won. Until I beat them then they have all the right to continue to boo. I think that’s what makes the theatrics of sports and competitive sports fun. Just gotta embrace it and it’s part of it.”

Jaylen Brown was asked for his thoughts on the fans still booing Irving, even though he left Boston in the summer of 2019. He said he doesn’t have any thoughts on it and the fans will do whatever they do. But he did have a suggestion.

“I think they should boo every player, every star player that comes into our arena,” Brown said. “Maybe it has an effect, maybe it doesn’t. But when (Nikola) Jokić and all these other players come in, boo them too.”

Jayson Tatum, who was mentored by Irving on his early path to the league through Duke, made it clear he has nothing but love for his former point guard.

“Obviously, we all know what happened. But that was a while ago, a couple years (ago),” Tatum said. “I have a great relationship with him. A few of us that are still here that played with him have a great relationship with him. We’ve all moved on from it, but you understand that fans are passionate and things like that. So I guess that is to be expected. But none of the players have any animosity towards Ky or anything like that.”

It can be tough navigating the public narratives that surround the game when your job is to figure out how to win. Dwelling on the past is annoying when you have a bright future. Brown was asked to compare this team to prior seasons and, per usual, he didn’t want to look back.

With how much the Celtics have overhauled the core of this roster, comparing this team to ones of the past is futile in some ways. But this team will only go as far as Brown and Tatum can take them.

“They’ve learned how to accept that failure’s part of the journey and that every season is going to be different,” Irving said. “The pieces around you, how you elevate them matters. Taking a lot of my advice, but also they’ve taken a lot of others’ advice and they have experience now. You gotta give ‘em credit. To see them grow, I’m nothing but proud.”

What he should be most proud of is how they’ve grown to appreciate how to control a game. When Irving was alongside them, they were using their talent to score and still figuring out the nuances.

Now Brown and Tatum have had enough individual success to spend most of the game figuring out how they can foster a collective output. They are making the game easier for themselves and outlasting their opponent by rarely having to force anything.

“Obviously, teams play and gameplan for us and they play up to a level, but we just gotta stay consistent and keep doing what we’re capable of doing, and eventually, their line will break,” Brown said. “It’s not like we’re going on a run, it’s more like we’re finally breaking the line of execution that they were playing at.”

The chemistry Boston exhibits helped them reach the league’s best record early and hold on to it comfortably.

“They’ve been showing for the past few years they’re a force to be reckoned with,” Irving said. “They’re not really playing around with us in the regular season with a lot of us teams. You can see they’re remaining focused and that’s the true testament of a team that wants to win a championship that’s hungry.”

And while many familiar storylines were playing out with the balance of the Jays, Tatum and Dončić battling it out, and Irving’s return, Xavier Tillman was something new added to the mix. Though he acknowledged he still had much to learn, nothing, not even the Irving sideshow, caught him off guard.

“No surprise,” Tillman said. “Other than JB’s 360 layup. I was in the corner like, ‘This dude’s crazy.’”

“To be honest, I have no idea what made me do that,” Brown said jokingly afterward. “You know, still a head-scratcher.”

Tillman might be the newest player to join the Celtics, but he’s already getting comfortable with the organization’s vibe. The Celtics are trying to cultivate a culture that doesn’t hold on to things.

“I feel like this is a cool place in terms of keeping basketball, basketball, and not making it your identity,” Tillman said. “So people are out to feel all the emotions. But at the same time, nobody takes it home and nobody’s dwelling as well. Then when you come in the next day, you can see people feel fresh-faced and everybody’s good, versus like dwelling on past performances and whatnot.”

The Mavs showed you can execute well and hit some shots for a few quarters to keep up with Boston, but most teams this season have eventually faded away.

In the postgame press conference, Mazzulla’s son Manny was asked if he had any thoughts on his dad’s coaching. Before he could answer, his father gave him the kind of advice Irving often gave the Jays.

“No,” The elder Mazzulla said. “Don’t get caught up in that trap.”

The Celtics have tried to outrun that trap for several years, but something always seems to get in their way and the narratives have snowballed on them. One year, the Jays didn’t know how to pass. The next, they weren’t ready to beat tested champions like the Warriors. Then it was a rookie Mazzulla taking over a tumultuous situation.

Now, they’ve all learned to block out the noise. Eventually, Boston will feel enough pressure in the postseason to make it easy to question what got them there. That’s when they’ll have to prove they won’t get caught up in that trap.

(Photo: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

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