NBA Playoffs: Kyrie Irving not only fails as the Celtics' needed leader, but turns out he was Boston's problem all along

It's been whispered around the league all year, as the Boston Celtics were the most underachieving team in the NBA during the regular season: That Kyrie Irving isn't just a problem. He's the problem.

After the Celtics' embarrassing Game 4 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks -- a loss that all but sealed the series -- Irving said some things that served to only buttress those thoughts.

Such as:

  • On leaving the floor early, before the game was over: "The game was over."
  • On his poor shooting: "Who cares?"
  • On his 7-for-22 shooting night: "I'm trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots, I should have shot 30. I'm that great of a shooter."

OK, Kyrie. You're an oddball. If you're going to say that sort of stuff, though, well, come out and back it up.

So when the Celtics came out and got smoked by the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 on Wednesday night, ending their season and perhaps Irving's Celtics career -- or, if you've read any of the tea leaves the last several months, definitely ending Irving's Celtics' career -- I guess you shouldn't have been all that surprised.

Irving may be a "basketball genius," as he recently put it.

But he ain't a leader.

And he will never be the best player for a championship team.

That's what he was gunning for when he asked out of Cleveland, right? To be The Guy for a title-contending team. And that's what we thought the Celtics could have been -- should have been -- coming into this season. Vegas put the over-under for this year's Celtics at 57.5 wins. That was second to only the Golden State Warriors, who were projected to win 62.5 games. The Celtics underperformed that projection by 8.5 wins, worse than any team other than the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans. (And the Celtics, unlike those other two teams, didn't suffer any debilitating injuries during their season.)

Irving couldn't do it.

He's not a leader.

He's not the premier player for a team that can win a title.

He's not what he thought he was.

What other conclusion can you come to about Irving after his team got smashed by the Bucks in Wednesday night's Game 5 and summarily dispatched from the playoffs, one year after (and one round earlier) last season's Irving-less team took LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink in the Eastern Conference finals? Two nights after going 7-of-22 for 23 points and coming off as petulant afterward, Irving went 6-of-21 -- including 1-of-7 from 3 -- for 15 points. He wasn't totally selfish, though: He did have that single, solitary assist.

Look at this Celtics team. Sure, Gordon Hayward wasn't the player he was pre-injury. Sure, Marcus Smart was hurt for big a chunk of the playoffs. Sure, Jayson Tatum stagnated in his sophomore season. Sure, Brad Stevens took the blame after the game on Wednesday, even though it was silly: "As far as any year I've been a coach, it's been the most trying. … I did a bad job. I'll do a lot of deep dives into how to be better."

But this has been a constant refrain I've heard from front office people around the league since November: It's Irving who is the problem.

If it was an end to his Celtics' career, and it sure felt like it, what an ignominious way to go out: With 8:40 left in the fourth quarter and the Celtics down 23, Irving was subbed out and trudged to the bench. I suppose it was less ignominious than the ending to Game 4, when Irving walked off the floor before the buzzer sounded, and the Boston faithful -- at least the ones who waited around until the buzzer -- booed as the Celtics headed to their locker after a 12-point loss that never felt that close.

Will Irving go to the New York Knicks in free agency this offseason? Who knows? The tea leaves sure seem to say yes. But certainly crazier things have happened in NBA free agency than Irving deciding he wants to be a Celtic for life.

The bigger question is this: Would the Celtics really want that?

Sure, if you can sign Irving and trade for Anthony Davis, you roll the dice on that. Irving has already proven he can be one of the best Robins in the NBA -- as long as he has a Batman beside him. And Anthony Davis is a helluva Batman.

But short of that, do you really want Irving to stay with the Celtics? Or would you rather launch into some sort of abbreviated rebuild around Tatum and Jaylen Brown?

Kyrie Irving is an incredible basketball player. I'm not sure there's a more fun player to watch in the NBA. He's a magician with the basketball, if not an "actual genius." But being fun and exciting and having a cultural pull that outweighs your resume does not equal being a winner. Being Uncle Drew does not make Kyrie Irving a Batman.

And being a Boston Celtic does not seem like the best thing going forward: Not for Kyrie Irving, and certainly not for the Boston Celtics.

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