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Why did Kyrie Irving leave the Celtics? How Boston disappointment led to Nets signing in 2019 free agency

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Why did Kyrie Irving leave the Celtics? How Boston disappointment led to Nets signing in 2019 free agency

For the first time since leaving the Celtics during the summer of 2019, Kyrie Irving is returning to the TD Garden and will play in front of fans.

During the 2019-20 season with the Nets, Irving was inactive for both of the games he played in Boston, as he dealt with a shoulder injury that plagued him throughout the year. This year, he played the Nets’ lone New England road game on Christmas Day, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans in attendance at the game.

Now, Irving will finally get to play in front of an arena full of Celtics fans in Games 3 and 4 of the series. On Friday, he’ll play in front of a stadium at 25 percent capacity. After that, it can expand to 100 percent, as the state of Massachusetts lifts its COVID restrictions.

Irving will surely be booed heartily in his return to Boston after the way that he exited the team.

But why exactly did Irving leave the Celtics? And why did Boston fans take his departure so hard? Here’s everything you need to know about Irving’s tumultuous final year with the Celtics.

(Getty Images)

Why did Kyrie Irving leave the Celtics for the Nets?

Irving left the Celtics because he wanted to return closer to his New Jersey home. He confirmed as much in his 2019 media day availability with the Nets, and his decision to leave was influenced by the passing of his grandfather early in the 2018-19 NBA season.

“After he passed, basketball was the last thing on my mind,” Irving said. “A lot of basketball and the joy I had from it was sucked away from me. There was a facial expression that I carried around with me throughout the year. Didn’t allow anyone to get close to me in that instance, and it really bothered me.

“I didn’t take the necessary steps to get counseling or get therapy or anything to deal with someone that close to me dying. I’ve never dealt with anything like that, so, for me, I responded in ways that were uncharacteristic, and I had to acknowledge that fact.”

Irving did talk to the Celtics about the issue and he expressed a desire to re-sign. However, after reflecting more on his grandfather’s death and how basketball prevented Irving from seeing him before his passing, his thought process started to shift.

“I talked to Danny [Ainge] and I wanted to re-sign. So throughout the year, it started becoming more and more clear that my relationship within my home life had a way higher precedence than the organization or anyone,” Irving said.

“Throughout that year, [things] just became rocky and a lot of the battles I thought I could battle through from that team environment, I just wasn’t ready for. I failed those guys in a sense that I didn’t give them everything that I could have during that season, especially with the pieces that we had.”

After the disappointing season, Irving made the exit that he had been building to and went to play for the Nets. That allowed him an opportunity to play closer to home and also gave him the luxury of playing alongside Kevin Durant, who also signed with Brooklyn. It also paired him with another veteran leader that had a history of championship-level success.

That took some of the pressure that he “just wasn’t ready for” off the table.

MORE: Kyrie Irving hopes to avoid “subtle racism” from Celtics fans

Timeline of Kyrie Irving’s departure from the Celtics

Before Irving’s final season in Boston, he committed to remaining with the team at an Oct. 4 preseason fan event.

“If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here,” Irving said to the Boston crowd, per NBA.com.

The next day, Irving continued to praise the Celtics for “taking a chance” on him and that he enjoyed playing in Boston.

“I’m happy here,” Irving said, per ESPN. “Every single day is at an all-time competitive high. What more can you ask for from an organization than taking a chance as far as getting me out of Cleveland? Really taking a chance regardless of whether I signed back or not.”

“They had the same attitude. They just wanted to show me what being a Celtic is about, and that I was going to come around, and I absolutely did. I believe in it. I believe in the franchise.”

And then, Irving commented that he wanted to see his jersey in the TD Garden rafters one day along with the retired numbers of other Celtics greats.

“I have every intention of signing with Boston next year. I do have a dream of putting my No. 11 in the rafters one day if I’m so blessed to do that,” Irving said, per NBC Sports Boston. “I’ve worked my tail off, obviously a lot of great players have come before me, but to throw my name in Boston Celtics tradition and history is something I’m glad I can do. And I’m planning on doing so.”

However, as the season went along, there appeared to be growing tension within the Celtics team and frustration on Irving’s part. That came to a head after a Jan. 2019 game against the Magic after Gordon Hayward gave a late-game inbounds pass to Jayson Tatum to try to let the then-rookie win the game. Irving didn’t take kindly to that and screamed at Hayward after the play.

Irving apparently wanted a chance at the last shot, or at least to touch the ball. And after the Celtics’ loss, he spoke about the team’s lack of experience and how he differed from his teammates.

“The best thing I can say is experience, we’re lacking it and because of that we have a lot of learning to do, so we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. You know, it gets tough. When it gets hard, you have to think. You have to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You have to be able to play through the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on and hold your head high when you make mistakes,” Irving said, per WEEI. “When your job is called upon, you have to do it to the best of your ability. You have to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there. 

“You have to appreciate to be out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against, it matters the type of preparation you have — what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are a lot of things that I don’t think that some of my teammates have faced just every single day. It’s not easy to be great.”

MORE: Marcus Smart contradicts Danny Ainge’s claim about Kyrie’s comments

Shortly thereafter, Irving walked back on his desire to rejoin the Celtics. Per NBC Sports Boston, here’s what he said on Feb. 1, 2019, three weeks after the Orlando game. 

“At the end of the day, I’m going to do what’s best for my career,” Irving said. “I spent the last eight years trying to do what everyone else wanted me to do — managers, other personnel — and I don’t owe anybody s—.

“I still have confidence in Boston and what they can promise for the future and what we have in terms of pieces. That’s what excited me at the beginning of the season.”

“… It’s my decision at the end of the day. Who cares who said what’s best for him, like, it doesn’t matter. It’s unwarranted commentary, and of course it’s going to continue throughout the season. I’m aware of that. I’m a professional, I’m not going to disrespect anybody but like I said, it really comes down to what’s best for me and my family.”

That comment was marked a major shift in Irving’s tenor and seemed to indicate that he was thinking about — if not, planning to — leave the Celtics. 

Later that month at the NBA All-Star Game, Irving had a discussion with Kevin Durant, who was then on the Warriors. There was plenty of speculation about what the two were discussing — perhaps a team up in Brooklyn — but after being asked about it, Irving said that he was merely talking to one of his best friends.

“I don’t have a private life when I’m out there in the NBA,” Irving said, per The Boston Globe. “Somebody wants to take a video, it is what it is. Pour water on [the speculation]? I’m a human being talking to another best friend of mine. It’s just crazy.

“This is the stuff that just doesn’t make the league fun. Nobody helps promote the league by doing [expletive] like that. Just fictitious, putting things on like what we’re talking about, it’s crazy. I guess that’s what you want, huh?”

Irving’s future remained in doubt for the rest of the season. The Celtics continued to stumble along until the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Bucks. Irving shot 25-for-83 over their final four games of the season against Milwaukee, each losses, and that marked the end of the season.

Then, of course, Irving signed with the Nets in free agency and completed an exit that went from improbable to expected in a matter of months.

MORE: Chris Paul is painfully aware of his playoff history with Scott Foster

What did the Celtics trade for Kyrie Irving?

The Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving from the Cavaliers on Aug. 30, 2017, in a four-player deal. Boston sent three players and three draft picks to get the All-Star point guard.

Here’s a look at the details of the trade:

Celtics acquire:

Cavaliers acquire:

  • PG Isaiah Thomas
  • SF/PF Jae Crowder
  • C Ante Zizic
  • 2018 first-round draft pick (Nets)
  • Two 2020 second-round picks

That first-round pick that the Cavaliers acquired became point guard Collin Sexton, who averaged 24.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game this year for the Cavaliers.

The original framework of the deal had only one second-round pick going Cleveland’s way, but after they came away from Isaiah Thomas’ physical discouraged with what it showed, Boston agreed to send another pick their way. Thomas had suffered a hip injury the previous season and had surgery to repair the issue.

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Who is in the College World Series? Teams, odds & bracket for 2021 NCAA baseball tournament

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Who is in the College World Series? Teams, odds & bracket for 2021 NCAA baseball tournament

The field is set for the 2021 Men’s College World Series. 

The final two games of the super regionals — Dallas Baptist vs. Virginia and Notre Dame vs. Mississippi State — wrapped up on Monday, with the Cavaliers and the Bulldogs punching their tickets to Omaha to play for a national championship. 

There has already been plenty of chaos in the postseason to get to this point. No. 1 Arkansas was taken down by unranked NC State in the super regionals. No. 6 TCU was knocked out in the regional round, as were four other top seeds in the original bracket.

Yet for all the chaos, the field is still loaded with teams viewed coming into the playoffs as among the best in the nation. Only NC State and Virginia come in as teams ranked outside the top 16 at the start of the playoffs. 

Here’s all you need to know about the 2021 Men’s College World Series.  

MORE: Full TV schedule to watch 2021 College World Series

Who is in the College World Series in 2021?

No. 2 Texas (47-15)

No team left in the 2021 field has won as many national championships as Texas. The Longhorns are looking to add to their six titles, tied for second with LSU behind only USC’s 12 championships. The No. 2 team in the nation has carved through the playoffs to this point, winning all three regional games and both super regional games against South Florida. The Longhorns have been held to single-digit runs just once and have yet to allow a team to score more than four runs in a game as they’ve outscored opponents 49-12 during the NCAA playoffs. 

And it’s no surprise they’ve dominated as this Texas team is loaded. It has one of the best starting pitchers in the country in Ty Madden, who has struck out 119 batters and posted a 2.41 ERA in 100.2 innings of work, to lead a group of arms that has recorded a collective 2.89 ERA this season, the lowest among Division I schools. But there’s more to Texas than just the pitching. Four batters in the everyday lineup are batting over .300 — second baseman Mitchell Daly, designated hitter Ivan Melendez, third baseman Cam Williams and first baseman Zach Zubia — and three of them have clubbed double-digit home run totals — Melendez, Williams and Zubia. There’s also some speed with center fielder Mike Antico already up to 39 stolen bases and left fielder Eric Kennedy sitting at 17. 

No. 3 Tennessee (50-16)

Tennessee just finished ahead in a tough SEC East at the end of the regular season, and had a strong SEC Tournament performance that came to an end in the finals against the top-ranked team in the country in Arkansas, but it’s been a perfect run since that extra-inning championship loss. The Volunteers swept through the Knoxville Regional and took down No. 14 LSU in two straight games in the Knoxville Super Regionals, winning 4-2 and then 15-6 to knock out the Tigers. 

The Volunteers have gotten it done on both sides of the ball. Blade Tidwell has emerged as a tough arm to face down the stretch with a 3.57 ERA this season and 87 strikeouts in 95.2 innings per work. He’s led a pitching staff that is second in Division I with a 3.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has the third-lowest walk rate in Division I at 2.44 BB/9. Sean Hunley has made a team-high 33 appearances and pitched to a 2.92 ERA and nine saves. The lineup can do a little bit of everything, with high on-base guys like shortstop Liam Spence (.477 OBP) and designated hitter Pete Derkay (.403 OBP), some power from bats like right fielder Jordan Beck (15 homers) and first baseman Luc Lipcius (15 homers) and some speed from second baseman Max Ferguson (15 stolen bases) and center fielder Drew Gilbert (10 stolen bases). 

No. 4 Vanderbilt

There is as much hype surrounding the Commodores as there is for any team in the College World Series. And why not? After a disappointing showing in the SEC Tournament, Vanderbilt swept through the Nashville Regional and the Nashville Super Regional, using its dynamic duo of Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter to each go seven innings with double-digit strikeout totals against East Carolina to send the team to Omaha. 

The one-two punch of Leiter and Rocker is simply unfair. They’re the consensus top college pitching prospects in the 2021 MLB Draft. Leiter has an ERA of 2.16 with 156 strikeouts in 96 innings of work, while Rocker has a 2.46 ERA with 155 strikeouts in 106 innings. The two lead a pitching staff that has the second-highest strikeout-per-nine rate in Division I at 11.8 K/9. And top-to-bottom, the lineup is dangerous. Freshman center fielder Enrique Bradfield Jr. has walked 42 times to just 36 walks while batting .356 and swiping a Division I-leading 46 bases this season as the leadoff hitter. The next two batters in the order — shortstop Carter Young and first baseman Dominic Keegan — each have 14 homers or more with Keegan batting .361 with a .673 slugging percentage and Young adding nine steals to his team-high 15 homers. And under coach Tim Corbin, who guided his team to the 2019 College World Series title, this Commodores team looks like a potent threat to repeat two years later. 

No. 5 Arizona (45-16)

When Arizona has been clicking this season, the Wildcats have been as tough to take down as any team in the nation. Twice during the year, Arizona had win streaks of at least nine games. The Wildcats then proceeded to dominate the Tucson Regional, winning all three games to move on to the super regionals. Returning to Tucson, there was no shortage of runs as Arizona won the first game against Ole Miss 9-3, lost the second game 12-3 and won the third and decisive matchup 16-3 to punch a spot in the College World Series. 

The Pac-12’s regular-season champion has had one of the nation’s best offenses this season. The team .327 batting average ranks fifth among Division I teams and the 526 runs scored lead all teams. Center fielder Donta Williams has an on-base percentage nearly at .500 while designated hitter Jacob Berry and catcher Daniel Susac each have slugging percentages above .580. Arizona’s bullpen has four relievers with more than 20 innings and an ERA below 3.00, while Chandler Murphy has been a valuable swing arm, starting and relieving and working to a perfect 7-0 record and a 3.63 ERA in 62 innings of work. There’s maybe no better lineup than that of the Wildcats in the College World Series this year. 

No. 9 Stanford (38-15)

No. 6 Texas Tech handled the Lubbock Regional and looked like it would be a challenge to take down on the road to the College World Series. Enter Stanford. At the Lubbock Super Regional, the Cardinal crushed the Red Raiders, winning the first game 15-3 and the second game 9-0. That came after Stanford staved off an underdog in UC Irvine, who defeated the Cardinal in the first finals game before Stanford came back to win the final elimination game 11-8. 

Stanford has one of the most dynamic batters in the College World Series in center fielder Brock Jones. The sophomore has a slash line of .302/.452/.620 with 16 homers and 14 stolen bases, while driving in a team-leading 54 RBIs and a team-high 53 runs scored. Jones was the sparkplug in the final super regional win, blasting three home runs to help send his team to Omaha. Second baseman Tim Tawa has been a similarly exciting player to watch as he’s batting .281 with 11 homers and 13 stolen bases. Ace Brendan Beck has emerged as a dominant arm for the Cardinal, pitching to a 2.96 ERA with 128 strikeouts in 100.1 innings and a near-perfect 9-1 record. Opponents have hit just a measly .195 against him so far this season. 

No. 7 Mississippi State (45-16)

Yet another team from the vaunted SEC reaching the College World Series, the Bulldogs brought out the bats against Notre Dame to finish off the Fighting Irish in the Super Regionals, defeating them 11-7 in the third game to reach the College World Series. Even against the No. 10 team in the nation, it was no surprise to see Mississippi State light up the box score as it won 9-8 in the first game of the Starkville Super Regional after sweeping through the regional with at least six runs scored in each game.

It has been the latest surge for a Mississippi State team that has been up and down near the end of the season. It ended the regular season by sweeping a tough Alabama team before it was knocked out of the SEC Tournament in resounding fashion, losing the first game to Florida 13-1 and the second game to Tennessee 12-2. But when this Bulldog team is clicking, it is one of the best in the nation. Will Bednar has given Mississippi State a true ace as he’s considered a top MLB Draft prospect as he’s pitched to a 3.53 ERA with 113 strikeouts in 74 innings, while compiling a 7-1 record, and Christian MacLeod has shown flashes of brilliance as the No. 2 starter. The pitching staff as a whole leads the nation with a 12.4 K/9. The lineup starts with one of the best bats in the nation in right fielder Tanner Allen, who is batting over. 390 with double-digit homers and more than 60 RBIs. Center fielder Rowdey Jordan has been another dynamic bat with a batting average over .320 and reliever Landon Sims has been a wipeout closer with 10 saves, 81 strikeouts and a 1.28 ERA in 42.1 innings. 

NC State (35-18)

The Wolfpack pulled off the biggest upset so far this year when, on Sunday, it took the elimination game against No. 1 Arkansas to eliminate the Razorbacks. Arkansas won the SEC regular season and tournament titles and finished the year 50-13, having lost only one series all year: the super regionals. But NC State had proven coming into the series that it could hang with any team. It reached the ACC Championship final, though it fell to Duke, but wrapped up the year on fire, having swept then-No. 16 Pitt and taken two of three from then-No. 9 Florida State. After the ACC tournament, NC State proceeded to sweep through the Ruston Regional, beating Alabama and taking both games against No. 17 Louisiana Tech. 

Simply put, this is a team that hits. Left fielder Jonny Butler, center fielder Tyler McDonough, designated hitter Terrell Tatum and first baseman Austin Murr are all batting over .300, while six total batters on the team have mashed double-digit home runs. Butler, McDonough and Tatum have proven to be dual-threats for the offense, with each batter having hit at least 11 home runs and swiped at least 13 bases. The issue has been more with keeping the opposition from scoring. The team has a collective 5.12 ERA this season, and only starter Sam Highfill (3.98) has an ERA below 4.00, but the pitching has steadily improved as the season has gone on and has shown it can get the job done against tough lineups. 

Virginia (34-25)

The last time UVA reached the College World Series, the Cavaliers defeated Vanderbilt to win the 2015 national championship. They’re back in 2021, and have done it not as one of the top ranked teams, but as an underdog. Virginia lost in the ACC semifinals to Duke after finishing third in the Coastal Division, but did eliminate Notre Dame from the playoffs along the way. The Cavaliers then lost the first game of the Columbia Regional to South Carolina before winning four straight, beating the Gamecocks and twice beating No. 15 Old Dominion. They faced similar odds in the Columbia Super Regional, losing the first game to Dallas Baptist before winning the next two elimination games. 

UVA hasn’t been a flashy team this season, but it has gotten the job done when it needs to. The Cavaliers were led at the dish by outfielder Kyle Teel, who hit a go-ahead grand slam against Dallas Baptist in Game 3 of the super regional. He has hit over .300 this season with nine home runs as he has made an early impression on the Cavaliers as a freshman. On the mound, senior Andrew Abbott has continued his standout UVA career in his final season with a 3.04 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 100.2 innings of work. If he’s on the mound, he’ll be a challenge for any team to beat. 

College World Series odds

This section will be updated when odds for the College World Series have been posted. 

College World Series bracket 2021

The four teams in each bracket will face off in a double-elimination tournament the same style as the regionals to decide which two teams will move on to the College World Series finals. 

Once there, the winners from each bracket will face off in a best-of-three series to declare a national champion. 

Here’s a look at how the brackets are shaping up in Omaha. 

Bracket 1

Team W L
No. 4 Vanderbilt
No. 5 Arizona
No. 9 Stanford
NC State

Bracket 2

Team W L
No. 2 Texas
No. 3 Tennessee
No. 7 Mississippi State
Virginia

When & where is the College World Series?

  • Date: June 19-30
  • TV Network: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU
  • Location: TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska

After the College World Series was called off in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, baseball will be back in TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska in 2021. 

Omaha has hosted the College World Series dating back to 1950, and TD Ameritrade has been the home ballpark since June 2011. 

ESPN networks will continue their coverage of the NCAA Division I Baseball Championships through the College World Series. A schedule for the games has not been released yet. 

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Joel Embiid stops in middle of postgame press conference to admire Kawhi Leonard’s monster dunk

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Joel Embiid stops in middle of postgame press conference to admire Kawhi Leonard's monster dunk

Joel Embiid had a brutal night, but at least Kawhi Leonard was there to cheer him up.

In the 76ers’ Game 4 loss to the Hawks on Monday, which evened the Eastern Conference semifinal series at two games apiece, Embiid totaled 17 points, 21 rebounds and four assists, but he shot just 4 of 20 from the field, including 0 of 12 in the second half. Yes, the MVP runner-up missed every shot he took over the final two periods — not ideal if you’re a Sixers fan.

MORE: NBA Twitter reacts to Leonard dunking on Favors

Embiid’s biggest miss came in the closing seconds when he rolled to the basket and botched a layup that would have given Philadelphia the lead. The four-time All-Star has been playing with a torn meniscus in his right knee, and he admitted that the injury limited his explosiveness.

“Great look, great look. I just didn’t have the lift,” Embiid said during his postgame media availability. “Thought I got fouled, too. But usually I would go up, especially for a bucket like that, try to dunk it, or try to get fouled and get an and-one. But I just seem to not be able to jump for obvious reasons. Like I said, it’s tough, but gotta think about Game 5.”

Before the conclusion of his press conference, Embiid stopped in the middle of an answer to watch an incredible moment from Game 4 of the Clippers-Jazz series. Embiid caught a glimpse of Leonard annihilating Jazz big man Derrick Favors with a one-handed dunk and couldn’t help but react to the play as it unfolded.

“I just felt like I didn’t have it tonight, and of course you can kind of — oh my God,” Embiid said. “You see that dunk? See that Kawhi dunk? Man, wow. But you can see from the beginning of the game, it was tough. You could just tell. If I’m not dominating, especially defensively, it’s easy to tell. So, I’m sure they saw it.

“But yeah, that Kawhi dunk was crazy. Man. All right, guys. Have a good night.”

Perhaps that vicious slam will inspire a bounce-back performance from Embiid as the series heads back to Philly.

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NBA Twitter reacts to Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard viciously dunking on Jazz’s Derrick Favors

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NBA Twitter reacts to Clippers' Kawhi Leonard viciously dunking on Jazz's Derrick Favors

A warning for any players still eligible to compete in the 2021 NBA playoffs: If you see Kawhi Leonard coming down the lane, get out of the way.

The Clippers star added another yet another victim to his postseason list during the first half of Monday’s Game 4 against the Jazz. With less than two minutes remaining in the second quarter, Leonard drove into the paint, took off and obliterated Utah big man Derrick Favors.

MORE: Latest injury updates on James Harden, Kyrie Irving

“Whoa! A major Kawhi-light,” play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle said on the TNT broadcast. 

Oh, you want that dunk in slow motion? Here you go:

Just look at this beautiful poster (and check out Donovan Mitchell’s face):

Leonard threw down a terrific one-handed slam on Mavericks forward Maxi Kleber in the first round, but his destruction of Favors may have been even more impressive. Here’s how NBA Twitter reacted to the dunk, including Hornets forward Miles Bridges, who knows a thing or two about launching an all-out assault on the rim:

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