BOSTON — Walk the streets of Beantown and you’ll see posters calling Nets guard Kyrie Irving a coward and posters portraying him as the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz.” Inside TD Garden on Wednesday, the vibe was even worse, if not unexpected.
Though Irving was injured and absent for what would’ve been his return to Boston, it didn’t stop fans from spewing venom at him or prevent former Celtic Kendrick Perkins from tweeting the guard “planned” his injury to avoid facing his old team.
Even Celtics coach Brad Stevens is not a fan of that kind of outsized negative attention.
“That’s one of the things that, unfortunately, when you’re really, really good at something, the level of scrutiny is even higher,” Stevens said. “He’s one of the best players in the NBA. The level of scrutiny is unfair, but it comes with the territory of all those guys. That’s why it’s so important that we constantly remind ourselves of how good they are.
“The way people talked about his time here … he was second-team all-NBA last year, he was ridiculous the year before. He’s a heck of a player. He gets to choose where he wants to play, he gets to go home. That’s something we all respect. We wish him nothing but health and happiness. This is the world we live in. I don’t particularly like it … but we’ve got to react to something, and unfortunately we’re very reactionary.”
Oh, there was a reaction all right, even if Irving wasn’t there to see it, hear it or feel it.
Irving missed a seventh straight game with a shoulder impingement. Coach Kenny Atkinson was noncommittal about the guard’s odds of playing in Friday’s rematch at Barclays Center, but he and his Nets were fully braced for a hostile environment in Boston despite Irving’s absence.
There were loud “Kyrie sucks” chants from Boston fans before and during Wednesday’s game.
“If I wear a bad tie, there’s a reaction from the crowd here — it’s Boston. So I totally expect, me, guys on the bench, it’s just part of it,” Atkinson said with a shrug. “It also makes what’s special about being here. They’re passionate, like New York. There can be some ribbing in there. That’s part of it. But I take it in good faith. We’re expecting it.”
Irving had a stellar first season in Boston and said he hoped to stay. But after being shaken by the death of his grandfather, he admitted he failed to lead them during a tumultuous second campaign.
Boston general manager Danny Ainge said Tuesday on ESPN that the blame lies with him. And Stevens said before Wednesday’s game that the failure was team-wide — though the buck stops with him as coach, not with Irving.
“We’ve said many times that whatever we didn’t achieve that we wanted to achieve as a team is on the team. It’s not for one person,” Stevens said. “I’ve also said many times that I really enjoyed Kyrie and I wish him nothing but the best. I think everybody that was on that team last year will be better because of that experience.
“Incredible player. We won a ton of games when he was here. We didn’t get to where we ultimately wanted to go last year, and that leaves a sour taste in everybody’s mouth that was a part of that team and that was all on our team. I’ve said many times, if you’re the one that has to put it all together and the team’s not as good, that’s on me.”
But that hasn’t stemmed the hate many Celtics fans are spewing at Irving, and it likely won’t. Atkinson said it might just be part and parcel of his stardom.
“I don’t have the answer to that. I think it’s the play, how dynamic he is — he’s an incredibly dynamic player,” Atkinson said. “I see it with LeBron [James], all the greats, we just pay more attention. Fans do, press does, it’s part of the business.”