2024 NBA Finals: Kyrie Irving needs to perform like a superstar for the Mavs to have a chance

BOSTON — On the long walk down the hallway from the visitors' locker room to his postgame news conference Thursday night, Kyrie Irving carried a basketball, dribbling occasionally. When someone offered to hold it as he took the podium, the Dallas Mavericks guard said, "l need it. I didn't shoot particularly well tonight."

In his homecoming to Boston, where he spent two distressed seasons, Irving logged 12 points on 19 shots and two assists against three turnovers in a 107-89 loss in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Met with boos and chants of "Kyrie sucks!" he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. When he sat for good 37 minutes into his night, cameras capturing his frustration on the bench, Irving finished with a game-worst minus-19 on the night.

"Being in this environment, I'm used to it at this point," said Irving, who stomped on Boston's mascot at midcourt and flipped the bird to fans in previous playoff trips to TD Garden. "Early in my career, I had a different relationship with Boston. ... Now I'm here as a veteran. Over the past few years, experiencing the playoffs here, even regular season, it's been the same thing. I thought it was going to be a little louder in here, but I'm expecting the same things going into Game 2, crowd trying to get me out of my element."

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving heads toward the bench during the first half of Game 1 of the basketball team's NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Kyrie Irving heads to the bench during the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Irving's co-star, Luka Dončić, scored 30 points on 26 shots, but the two combined for just three assists. The Mavericks totaled nine — five fewer than their season low — on 35 made field goals. Boston played both stars one-on-one, funneling them to help in the paint and staying home on shooters. The Celtics blocked as many shots as Dallas assisted, and the Mavs managed just two corner 3-point attempts, missing both.

"Even as I say that — 'they are relying on the one-on-one' — every time I got an iso, there's almost two, three people waiting for me to get in there," Irving said. "I have to catch the ball on a live dribble and be aware of my opportunities. It's uncharacteristic for us to have nine assists. The ball has got to move."

It was a remarkable defensive effort from Boston, one Dallas did not match. But can it? Six Celtics scored in double figures. Kristaps Porziņģis routinely scored over smaller defenders, netting 20 points in an impressive return from a calf strain that cost him the past month. Count Jaylen Brown among several Celtics who repeatedly made Dončić work defensively, his 22 points hardly reflecting his forceful effort.

And yet it felt like Boston left another level on the table.

"We played well tonight. There's a lot of things we feel like we could do better," said Jayson Tatum, who was held to 16 points on 16 shots. "It definitely does feel good to win the first game, but we know that two years ago we won the first game and the outcome of that series. So we still have a lot of work to do."

Two years ago, Tatum was the first-timer in the Finals, facing the veteran Golden State Warriors. The script is flipped this time around, as Irving is the only Maverick accustomed to a Finals stage. No need to worry about Dončić, whose European experience prepared him well. There is nobody else on the Mavs to turn to for guidance but Derrick Jones Jr., who played garbage time for the Miami Heat in the 2020 NBA Finals and missed seven of his nine shots in Game 1. P.J. Washington looked like the only other one ready for a fight.

"We just have to stay connected, stay together," said Washington, who totaled 14 points and eight rebounds. "I felt like we let the crowd get to us a little bit, let the refs get to us, let them making shots get to us. At the end of the day, we just have to stick together and be ourselves. We are a great team. They are a great team at the end of the day. We're all right. It's only one game. We'll be better for Game 2."

They better hope so. If Thursday was any indication, Dallas desperately needs both Dončić and Irving to perform to the best of their abilities, and even then they could be facing an uphill battle in this series.

The Mavericks spent much of their postgame press availability projecting optimism about their ability to create open looks, even if they missed a lot of them. Trailing 58-29 midway through the second quarter, Dallas closed within 72-64 with 4:28 remaining in the third, forcing a Celtics timeout. The Mavericks had three opportunities to cut further into Boston's advantage, but rookie center Dereck Lively II traveled on one possession, Irving traveled on the next, and Irving missed his third wide-open look from distance.

The Celtics responded on a 14-0 run, and the game was gone.

"I thought he had great looks that just didn't go down," Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said of Irving's 6-for-19 shooting performance. "He had some great looks at three. He had some great looks in the paint. That's just part of basketball. Sometimes they go in. Sometimes they don't. Tonight, they just didn't go down for Kai — or most of the team. And hopefully we get those same shots in Game 2, and we can be better."

Better offensively. Better defensively. That is a lot to be better at, while hoping the Celtics get worse. Both Dončić and Kidd stressed the importance of playing with joy. "I thought we weren't having fun," said Kidd. That is difficult when you dig a 17-point hole in the first quarter. They felt they found it in the third.

Facing the media, Irving smiled in the game's aftermath. A lot. It was something we have not seen much from him in Boston, even when he played for the Celtics. Maybe he knows something we don't. He better.

As Irving walked off the podium, greeting acquaintances in the hallway with a smile, someone asked him about the ball in his hands. "My heartbeat," he said. Dallas needs it in Game 2, or else Boston will take it.