Mavs' Irving reflects on Celtics tenure: 'I wasn't my best self'

Kyrie: Past actions in Boston not a 'reflection of who I am' (1:44)

Mavericks star Kyrie Irving reflects on his experience playing in Boston ahead of a showdown with the Celtics in the NBA Finals. (1:44)

DALLAS -- As Kyrie Irving prepared for his third playoff series against the Celtics since departing Boston, this time in the NBA Finals, the 13-year veteran superstar reflected fondly on his brief time with the franchise and expressed regret about some of his previous reactions with the passionate fan base that has been hostile toward him.

Irving, who is unanimously considered by his Dallas Mavericks teammates to be the team's vocal leader, played two seasons for the Celtics before departing in free agency to join his friend Kevin Durant with the Brooklyn Nets during the 2019 offseason.

Irving's Nets twice faced the Celtics in the playoffs, eliminating Boston in five games in the 2021 first round and getting swept in the 2022 first round, which ended up being his final postseason appearance for Brooklyn. Some of those series' most memorable moments were interactions between angry Celtics fans and Irving, such as when a fan was arrested for throwing a water bottle at him after Brooklyn's Game 4 win in 2021 and when Irving was fined $50,000 for flashing his middle finger at fans during the Nets' Game 1 loss in 2022.

"I think I'm better at consolidating kind of the emotions now or being aware of what it's going to be like," Irving said after the Mavericks' Monday practice. "We call it animosity, we call it hate, we call it, 'It's going to be hell in Boston.' I mean, there are real, live circumstances going on in the world that are bigger than the basketball, kind of the competitive side of things and answering those questions.

"But I will say last time in Boston, I don't think that was the best -- not this regular season, but when we played in the playoffs and 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. 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.

"I'm built for these moments, to be able to handle circumstances like that, and I've been able to grow since then. So of course it's going to be a hectic environment, but I'm looking forward to it and I see it as a healthy relationship that I have with the fans. I almost think about 'Gladiator,' just winning the crowd over. It is good to hear the TD Garden silent when you're playing well. They still respect great basketball."

Irving was an All-Star both of his seasons with the Celtics, arriving in Boston after requesting to be traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers on the heels of three consecutive Finals appearances, highlighted by winning the 2016 championship.

An injury sidelined Irving for the entire postseason in 2018, when rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown led the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. Irving's looming free agency and lack of a long-term commitment to Boston loomed over the franchise throughout the next season, when the Celtics were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round.

Irving said some "fair criticism" has come his way due to his short tenure in Boston, considering his status as one of the league's best players, but he felt that "a little bit more grace could have been extended my way, especially what I was dealing with during that time as a human being."

"I know sometimes in sports, it's literally about the end goal and result and what you accomplish, and that's one thing," Irving said. "But we're still human at the end of the day. I wasn't my best self during that time. When I look back on it, I just see it as a time where I learned how to let go of things and learned how to talk through my emotions.

"It was just a chapter in my life that I got to enjoy for the most part. We had a great opportunity to do some special things, but it was cut short, just based off personal reasons on my end. One thing I look back on my time in Boston -- I've said this over the past few years, but somehow it gets tossed under the rug -- but the greatest thing I learned from Boston was just being able to manage not only my emotions or just what's going on on a day-to-day basis of being a leader of a team or being one of the leaders, and having young guys around you that have their own goals, but you have to learn how to put the big picture first."

Irving said that seeing Tatum and Brown develop into one of the league's elite star duos has made him "nothing short of proud," adding that he tried to share as much advice and wisdom with the tandem as he could during their time as teammates. He said he has continued to have brotherly relationships with Tatum and Brown in the years since, but they have not communicated since the Celtics and Mavericks clinched their bids to the Finals.

"This basketball stuff is going to be competitive," Irving said. "No matter what, we're going to go at each other. But getting to know them as human beings, they're really special people alongside other people that I got a chance to know in the Boston organization."

Speaking following Boston's practice Saturday, Tatum -- who said he still talks to Irving occasionally during the season -- said that he has "a lot of great memories" from playing alongside Irving for the first two seasons of his career.

"Yeah obviously there were some ups and downs but I think, for me, being a first-, second-year player, being around a superstar, essentially, every day and seeing how to navigate that space, and then obviously on the court, he's one of the most talented guys I've ever seen," Tatum said. "So it seems like a very long time ago but I've got a lot of great memories from having Kai as a teammate."

And while Tatum credited the way the Mavericks and Irving have come together, calling it a "great fit," he said he also learned a lot from the 2018-19 season, Irving's second and final one in Boston, a tumultuous campaign for the Celtics that began with them being talked about as the heirs to the Eastern Conference after LeBron James went to the Los Angeles Lakers the prior summer, but ended with them losing to the Bucks in five games in the East semifinals.

"Just learning that being on such a talented team, that it's not just talent that's going to take you over the top," Tatum said of his experiences that season. "You have to have guys that are willing to sacrifice, guys that are willing to do the other things for the team to have a chance.

"It wasn't a Kyrie thing -- it was all of us. We all took part in why that season wasn't a success and we all learned from it. We all moved on. Some of us stayed here, other guys left and have done great things since that season. So I just look at that as a learning experience from my second year."

Irving understands that his history with the Celtics will be a prominent storyline throughout the Finals. He said he's been "bombarded" with questions about Boston since his decision to leave for Brooklyn and that he will not allow the past to "cripple" him.

"Regardless of the attention that's being paid to what it's going to be like on my end, I have a group to lead that's going to be looking at me for a voice of peace and to be able to control what I can control and also help them through it," said Irving, who has averaged 22.8 points and 5.2 assists per game this postseason while leading to the Finals alongside Luka Doncic.

"So I'll take the brunt of it, of all the yells and stuff like that and all the remarks, but I've been able to grow since then and acknowledge that I just can handle things better, especially when I want to put majority of my energy towards playing well. I can't just be getting into it with fans like that -- even though it may be fun at times -- but it's a waste of energy. It's a waste of my time and it's also a waste of my talent trying to answer questions from the past that people have.

"People are going to bring up the record and all the extra stuff. Again, there's days, there's idle time in between, so you see the media pundits doing their normal thing. It's cool. But I'm looking forward to the challenge on the court against the Boston Celtics and being able to lead my guys."

ESPN's Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.