He was mildly surprised when it rolled off, but no matter. Thirty-eight seconds after that, he launched a 3-pointer that he was convinced was going to drop too.
It didn’t. In the first half of the NBA’s season opener at the TD Garden, Irving took eight shots — and missed all of them.
“Yeah,” Irving told ESPN, “that was the game when [former Cavs coach] Mike Brown took me out after I missed [my ninth shot] in the second half and didn’t play me again. I remember it well.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens did no such thing. He continued to play both Irving and his backcourt mate, Gordon Hayward, who was playing in his first game since a gruesome injury in Game 1 of the 2017-18 season derailed his entire season.
Even as the two stars combined for 2-for-12 shooting from behind the 3-point line, the Celtics rolled to a 105-87 win over their division rival.
Expectations were that Hayward would be rusty and perhaps even a little timid returning to the floor after such a traumatic injury. Less discussed was the long layoff that Irving experienced following a pair of knee surgeries that prematurely ended his season in March.
“Everyone’s been talking about Gordon being out for 12 months, but Kyrie has been out six,” Stevens said.
Irving said he felt great throughout the game and considered each shot he took a good one.
“I think any shot I’m taking is a great shot — unless it’s double-contested or Embiid is meeting me at the rim,” he said with a laugh. “At the same time, I’ve been so hyped up to play … but you gotta just keep shooting.”
Hayward showed a hint of hesitation on the first possession of the game, when he caught the ball in the corner and had a brief open look at the basket. He sized up his defender, Ben Simmons, prepared to shoot and then thought better of it.
Later in the quarter, he ventured in the paint for a reverse layup with Joel Embiid in pursuit and came up short.
“My adrenaline was definitely bumping those first three or four minutes,” Hayward said.
Hayward admitted that he did think about the devastating injury from last season, which left him writhing in pain, his ankle grotesquely dislocated.
“It definitely crossed my mind, especially warming up and running out through the tunnel,” he said. “Just thought about maybe not doing any back door plays this game.
“It [the injury] was a major part of my life at this point in time, so I just tried to get that out of my head as soon as I started playing. And once you’re out there on the court, some of that disappears.”
A glimpse of the vintage Utah Jazz Hayward emerged early in the second quarter, when he hit back-to-back jumpers, the second over the outstretched arms of the 7-foot Embiid. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting in 25 minutes. He added five rebounds and played completely turnover-free.
Irving checked out with seven points on 2-of-14 shooting and a team-high seven assists.
“There’s a difference between going 0-for-8 at the half and never shooting again and going 2-for-14,” Irving said. “I’m perfectly fine with that. Brad was encouraging me. My teammates were encouraging me.”
Told it might take a little time for Hayward and Irving to find their footing together, he smiled.
“It won’t take as much time as you think,” he said. “We’ve been playing great together for a couple of months now.”