- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Kyrie Irving didn’t even wait for the game to finish. With around 10 seconds left in Monday’s Game 4 against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics star stepped off the court and started to make his way back to the locker room.

Shortly after the buzzer sounded — completing a 113-101 loss that leaves the Celtics in a 3-1 hole in the series — cameras caught Irving walking alone in the hallway of TD Garden, with his head down.

“The game was over,” Irving told reporters when asked why he walked off early.

Irving’s walkoff highlighted another low moment in what has been a frustrating year for the Celtics. After winning an underwhelming 49 games in the regular season, the Celtics are now on the brink of elimination in the second round of the playoffs. They’ve hardly looked like the contenders many expected them to be entering the season.

Barring a miracle comeback in the series, Boston will be left having to address a potential franchise-changing offseason this summer.

With Irving likely to opt out of his contract, the Celtics face the possibility of their 27-year-old star leaving in free agency. Can Boston convince him to return? On the flip side, do they want him back?

Irving has increasingly become a divisive figure for the Celtics, often criticizing the team’s younger players in the press. He has since apologized for those repeated comments, but Boston’s chemistry rarely came together throughout the year. And occasionally, Irving has been a negative player on the court — killing offensive possessions by not passing the ball and settling for long jump shots.

Irving’s progression from fan favorite to public enemy No.1 among Celtics fans would have been hard to imagine just a year ago.

In July 2017, the Celtics acquired a disgruntled Irving from Cleveland — and went on to become one of the best teams in the NBA. That following season, Irving looked like one of the league’s most dominant players — until he was shut down in March with a knee injury. Even then, without Irving, the Celtics still reached the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in Game 7 to the Cavaliers.

Despite the loss, the Celtics appeared to have the bright future: Irving and co-star Gordon Hayward were both set to return from season-ending injuries, Boston had a pair of promising players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and had a series of talented role players.

But the pieces failed to connect.

Irving is far from the only Celtic who deserves blame. Hayward struggled to find his game coming off a broken leg. In Year 2, Tatum appears to have regressed. Perhaps more than anything, the Celtics had too many talented players — and coach Brad Stevens couldn’t find the right formula to keep everyone happy.

“Maybe we did a little too much talking in the media, and then we read it, and it separated us in some sense,” Brown told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in a recent profile. “But there’s no bad blood in our locker room. There never has been.”

If Irving leaves, the Celtics could still field a competitive team, but it would change their trajectory. As much of a pain Irving can be, he’s still an elite offensive player — one of the few athletes who can create his own shot when it matters. The team’s ceiling most likely won’t be as high.

And if Irving fails to re-sign, that makes Boston’s chances of trading for New Orleans’ Anthony Davis more difficult. Initially, it was widely assumed the Celtics would be comfortable with making Tatum the main piece in a trade for Davis, a six-time All-Star. But could Boston afford to give up Tatum if Irving leaves, especially with Davis a potential free agent after next season?

Climbing back into the series with the Bucks — Game 5 is in Milwaukee Wednesday night — would help the Celtics avoid — or at least postpone — what is looking like a difficult offseason.

The Celtics aren’t eliminated yet, and they blew out the Bucks in Game 1. Yet in the three games since, Boston hasn’t been able to stop MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and Irving has been in a terrible slump.

Following a blowout loss in Game 3, Irving, who shot just 8-of-22, declared: “From this point on, I don’t think you’ll see another 8-of-22.”

Technically, he was right. Against the Bucks on Monday, he shot 7-of-22.

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