Kyrie Irving says 'protection' from Mavericks, growth led to NBA Finals return

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (C) scored 36 points in a blowout win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday in Minneapolis. Photo by Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE
Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (C) scored 36 points in a blowout win over the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday in Minneapolis. Photo by Craig Lassig/EPA-EFE

May 31 (UPI) -- Kyrie Irving says personal growth and "protection" provided by Dallas Mavericks teammates played key roles in his recent success and return to the NBA Finals, following years of playoff woes and off-court distractions.

Irving and fellow star guard Luka Doncic scored 36 points apiece to propel a 124-103 mauling of the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Thursday in Minneapolis, sending the Mavericks to the finale for the second time in franchise history. They will face the Boston Celtics in Game 1 on Thursday in Boston.


Now in his 13th season, the 32-year-old Irving returns to the stage for the first time since he was 25. Then, he was still a young phenom, with major playoff experience and success early on, playing alongside LeBron James for three-consecutive trips to the NBA Finals -- and earning one title. Years of team switching, playoff blunders and controversies followed.


Now Irving appears on the ascent, morphed into a weathered leader.

"It's always been [about] making sure my teammates understand who I am, what I want to accomplish with them and being selfless in my approach," Irving told reporters. "Also, realizing that everyone is going to have a past. Everyone is going to be judged for that, but I think putting your best foot forward and focusing on the future is the best place to be.

"All the stories and narratives are going to exist forever. I'm sure I'll hear it until I retire. But again, this is what comes with this industry."

Irving averaged 25.6 points, 5.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game this season for the Mavericks. He logged 27 points per game in the conference title series, while making nearly half of his shooting attempts. His teams failed to advance past the second round in his three previous postseason trips.

Irving said it was "a little unfair" that he was judged by people who didn't know him earlier in his career, but he "developed a mentality" to brush off the criticisms.

"I just stopped being a kid toward this industry and really grew up and grew my wings," Irving said.


Past disparagement was prompted by Irving's previous refusal to get vaccinated for COVID-19, resulting in absences during his Brooklyn Nets tenure -- and the promotion of video that shared anti-Semitic sentiments, which he later apologized for.

"Being a professional and coming to work every single day, that's what i want to be remembered as," Irving said. "My off-the-court aspects of making people better and making me better is something I like to hang my hat on too, because it matters as a human being."

Deaths of people close to Irving, which occurred over the last several years, impacted his life priorities, joy for the game and relationships with past teammates. He previously said he first neglected to take "necessary steps to get counseling or therapy," struggled to be approachable and failed to bring teammates together while with the Celtics, as he digested his grandpa's death 2018.

The 2020 death of Kobe Bryant -- one of Irving's close friends and mentors -- also impacted his growth, while he was with the Brooklyn Nets. Irving revered Bryant for his strength and teaching ability.

"In a year and a half, you lose two great leaders in your life, it's not easy to turn the page and flip a switch," Irving told reporters after Bryant's death, referencing his grandpa and the basketball icon.


Irving said Thursday that vulnerability and intimacy led to tight bonds with his new Mavericks teammates.

"They've been able to really shower me with the support and love," Irving said. "That's needed for any human being, not just because I'm Kyrie Irving, and the way that they see me in the public eye.

"They really protect me and I protect them and I'm grateful for them. That's all I've ever asked for from an organization or my teammates, for them to protect me the same way I protect them, because I go out of my way to speak good things about people, to be in the right place for them and understand that human emotions can get the best of you. But how you respond is how you will be remembered."

Doncic said Thursday that Irving has helped him mature and "see basketball in a different way." He also praised Irving earlier in the week for his poise and leadership.

"He brought that calmness to our team, the maturity, and it's been unbelievable to have him on our team," Doncic said. "Learning from him every day, positive energy always, it's just a blessing having him on our team."

The Celtics will host the Mavericks at 8:30 p.m. EDT Thursday at TD Garden. Game 2 will be June 9 in Boston.


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