Kyrie Irving is returning to the NBA Finals stage in a good place: 'It’s not too often you’re back'

DALLAS — There’s a pause before Kyrie Irving speaks, almost a rhythmic beat as he gathers his thoughts.

Going off-script on the floor produces the most beautifully awkward, twisting layups with special English.

But in this public sphere, Irving makes sure his English doesn’t go to the unintended places. Sometimes, he’ll ask for clarity to be sure, or state, “I’m trying to think of the best way to say this.”

Perhaps it’s maturity or, even better, discernment — making sure he’s on message while still being himself, from the experiences over the past few years or, likely, the totality of his career to date.

He has often expressed how he has felt at a given moment, many times to his detriment. How he feels now only matters so much, so it doesn’t have to be redemption. His actions are what count here, and the actions are creating a more complete picture.

Perhaps it’s realizing how close he was to losing it all and now he’s back on the NBA Finals stage for the first time since 2017, when he was a much younger man.

“I don’t want to call it a life raft or lifeline, but it was like family reaching out,” Irving told Yahoo Sports last week during the Western Conference finals.

(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports Illustration)
(Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports Illustration)

That family Irving referenced was Dallas Mavericks GM Nico Harrison, whose relationship with Irving goes back to Harrison’s days as a Nike executive — a place he'd been for nearly 20 years — and who signed an extension with the Mavs on Tuesday.

It all happened so fast, Irving and the Mavericks coming together out of need last February, and the success has evolved even quicker than the most rosy, blue-eyed optimist could’ve envisioned.

The Mavericks have enabled Irving to be his best self on the floor, and he’s evolved into a leader on a team with many young pieces.

“It was such a quick process, man,” Irving told Yahoo Sports recently. “I was in West Orange High School in New Jersey working on my game and trying to figure out what this trade would lead me to, to getting a call from Dallas and, in a blink of an eye, here I am in L.A. playing the Clippers the next night."

Irving needed a fresh start after the once-promising Brooklyn Nets situation turned toxic. The Mavericks needed to restore confidence with franchise star Luka Dončić following departures of key running mates.

In a way, the respective mistakes of both parties led them to each other, and it’s paid off.

“It really wasn’t about the past, it was about our past,” Harrison told Yahoo Sports. “And leaning on that. I know the person you are, your character.”

So Dallas sent out Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, a future first-round pick and two seconds for Irving and Markieff Morris — a trade that looks like high thievery in hindsight, given how well Irving has fit in his first full season next to Dončić.

Irving could’ve very well been out of the NBA, his reputation in tatters following a tweet of an antisemitic film that garnered weeks of controversy, an indefinite team suspension, demands from the Anti-Defamation League and condemnation all around the league.

He deleted the tweet, issued an apology but the damage was done.

His spellbinding talent and his relationship with Harrison produced this chance.

The Western Conference was too full of talent, and the Mavericks couldn’t risk passing up the opportunity to give Dončić true help; it would’ve started a clock on some inevitable trade demand, some believe.

“It depends on what you already have. Some teams need big moves,” Harrison said. “For us, when you have a young player who’s ready to go, you have to pair him with as much talent. So that requires you to make a [big] move.”

“Go get him. Get him,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd told Yahoo Sports of his conversation with Harrison about Irving. “We need another star. We felt that he fit next to Luka, and he was able to get him.”

Kidd had been traded multiple times through his career and knew the rejuvenating effect it could have with someone like Irving — and he felt the Mavericks were perfectly positioned to cultivate the right environment to bring out the best in him.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - MAY 15: Head coach Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks talks with Kyrie Irving #11 during the second quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five of the Western Conference Second Round Playoffs at Paycom Center on May 15, 2024 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)
Jason Kidd told GM Nico Harrison to go get Kyrie Irving. (Photo by Joshua Gateley/Getty Images)

“Yeah, we believe that we have the people power to turn that around. Nico and myself as being the head of that,” Kidd said. “Because we knew Kai … and it all worked out. I mean, Kai participated at a high level. But you can see he's having fun. The joy of basketball is at a high. But the trust that he has in Niko and myself is at a high too, and I think we were honest with him and he was honest with us.”

That first in-depth conversation Kidd and Irving had was simple.

“I wasn't judging him on any of whatever was going on. I was looking at him as the man that he is when he walks in the office,” Kidd said. “And so, whatever was going on in the past was the past. And so for me, it was just a matter of, 'How do we help you get to the next level? Or get back to having fun playing basketball?' We talked about that.”

Harrison isn’t surprised about Irving’s evolution as a leader, attributing it to age and experience.

“The thing about Kyrie: He’s always been very introspective and thoughtful,” Harrison said. “So when you think about what qualities make a good leader, he’s always had them. He’s hard working, he cares about other people. So he’s always been a leader. He’s just taken it to another level. He’s at that age in his life where it’s most important.”

Irving showed enough to get the Mavericks to commit to a three-year deal worth $120 million last summer (and reportedly tried to recruit LeBron James to Dallas), and although he wasn’t an All-Star officially this season, his production has been sterling and his affect on winning has been palpable, with the Mavericks going 39-19 when Irving was available, compared to 11-13 when he was injured.

“This has been the greatest … portion of my career,” Irving said. “To be able to now give wisdom and also speak from a place of experience. When you're a young person, again, you're trying to speed through life, you're trying to get through everything.”

He tells his teammates that team goals are what matter now, and that this run to the Finals will be remembered forever.

“You know, people remember the greatest players of all time, and they argue all the time, but no one really talks about team aspect unless they're a true fan of the craft,” Irving said. “You talk about the Spurs, you gotta talk about dynasty. You talk about the Lakers, you got to talk about dynasty. You talk about the Celtics, you talk about dynasty. They literally took over eras, the Detroit Pistons, they defined an era.”

The Irving who spoke in fortune-cookie riddles, the one who used to be mocked, is one who speaks with such clarity right now, urging his teammates to stay in the moment and not look ahead.

“You know, he's been able to teach us a lot about being poised,” Mavericks rookie center Dereck Lively II told Yahoo Sports. “A lot about the ins and outs of the game and also, the runs. You know, he can go on a 20-point run himself, but after that, you're gonna need some help.”

There certainly appears to be an internal balance within the 32-year-old. Irving almost seems to come across as a gentle leader, at least with Lively.

“I'm gonna make mistakes,” Lively said. “But being able to try to move on, being able to go to the next play and be able to learn from it, definitely something I've learned from these two [Irving and Dončić]. You know, whenever I mess up sometimes, they're gonna yell at me a bit, but right after they're gonna tell me to keep going.”

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 30: Kyrie Irving #11 of the Dallas Mavericks celebrates after a 124-103 victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals at Target Center on May 30, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving is heading back to Boston, where he played for two seasons. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Traditionally, Boston and its Garden have been a house of horrors for opponents for decades, with dead spots in the floor, hot water mysteriously going missing from visiting locker rooms and even fans dressing up in white sheets to simulate ghosts.

This Finals series, especially the first two games in Boston, will be a test for Irving’s newfound peace. It’s a reminder of his time as a Celtic and even a Cleveland Cavalier. It could be a reminder of any team he’s played for, honestly — the unfinished business, the hurt feelings.

“When we're growing up, we are very individualistic and very nearsighted in terms of what's in front of us as a young person. You see what's in front of you,” Irving said. “And I am a young person still, so I don't want to say like that. I'm still growing.

“I look at it as a journey. And people say that often, but they don't know what that actually means. It means when you enjoy the journey, it means that you've had an acceptance of what comes with this.

“I've been able to realize that my presence around the NBA brotherhood and WNBA sisterhood is different than who I am outside in the broader world. This is a part of it. But this isn't the whole thing.”

It was supposed to be a whole lotta fun in Brooklyn, a very ambitious, very promising venture that could’ve resulted in at least one championship, pairing with Kevin Durant and, later, James Harden.

If Irving doesn’t twist his ankle against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the 2021 playoffs, the Nets would've been the heavy favorite to win that title. It hindered the start of the next season, too, and he never really got on track.

“If you have a hamstring or you have a knee soreness, people are looking at you like, ‘But I would play,’ and then you have former players saying that stuff as well, which leads to shorter careers at some capacity,” Irving said. “I'm coming off the most significant ankle injury I've ever had in my career, but no one sees that and then I am suspended indefinitely for the COVID vaccine and then now I'm not around the team fixing or healing my ankle.”

New York’s vaccine mandate put Irving at a disadvantage compared to players in other areas who weren’t vaccinated. It was a scary time for many around the country and around the world. Irving became a symbol for so many things, and he couldn’t even use basketball as an outlet.

“I can’t rehab, I can’t have anyone around me from the Brooklyn Nets helping me," Irving said. "Again, not their fault It was the circumstances. [But] I’m figuring out, 'How do I maximize my potential?'”

Irving laughs at the memory of those 2021 playoffs, probably because it feels so long ago. But so much had happened between then and now, the things that brought Irving, hopefully, to a place of growth.

“I think sometimes people still saw me as the young man coming into the league like as if I don't have other responsibilities and other things that matter to me,” Irving said. “So I think that's been part of the evolution of just helping people realize that I'm matured.”

He’s a father to three and a husband. His stepmother, Shetellia Riley Irving, and wife, Marlene Wilkerson, sat nearby during the Western Conference finals during the road games in Minneapolis.

“This is a supportive environment, and there's a lot of energy positivity, then this is where I thrive and this is good, fun, good-hearted people,” Irving said. “Not saying I didn't have that in Brooklyn, I was just saying that it's all about organizational structure, and it's all about how you treat your veterans. It's all about how you treat your star players. It's all about how you treat people with respect.”

He’s careful when referencing the Brooklyn experience, similar to how he described playing in Boston in the 2022 playoffs during his media session Monday.

“Everyone saw me flip off the birds and kind of lose my s*** a little bit — that wasn’t a great reflection of who I am and how I like to compete on a high level,” he said. “It wasn’t a great reflection on my end towards the next generation on what it means to control your emotions in that type of environment, no matter what people are yelling at you.”

He’s careful now, because he was often reckless then. Irving is in the moment now, and depending on when one was introduced to Irving, an opinion can sway in one of a million directions.

Irving is still someone who pays attention, still figuring out how to be a basketball player and a citizen.

“So I tried to give basketball answers and the basketball answers are media-trained answers. So they're very safe,” Irving told Yahoo Sports. “They're very political. They're very middle ground. They're very gray area because you're taught not to give personal information.

“But I think what has happened over the past few years is people thought my priorities were going to this thing over here, this thing over here, and now I'm lending my voice [to causes]. It's like, no this is something that I've been called to do since I was a kid. It was before the NBA.”

He points out the “business” of the NBA is very lucrative, while also being very young at 77 years old — he’s got living grandparents older than the league, he said.

Irving believes his absence from the NBA’s grandest stage will lead to him savoring every moment, perhaps quieting a Boston Garden crowd for a night or two, perhaps making him a champion twice over.

“Like, because when you're in it, and you're in it, and you're, like, I want to enjoy it. You don't know how because you’re thinking about beyond,” Irving said. “You get kicked out of the playoffs in April last year. I had to live with that the whole summer. And it’s not too often you’re back [in the Finals] after seven years.”

He paused again, and smiled.

Just the right English.