2024 NBA Finals: Kyrie Irving respectfully calls Celtics a cult, but playing in Boston is certainly a different vibe

BOSTON — The Celtics' playoff slogan, “Different here,” smacks of arrogance and reeks of Northeastern elitism, until one walks into the TD Garden and looks up.

All the championship banners and retired numbers, they let new players — 19-year-old rookies or veterans alike — know of the immense expectations.

Some franchises hang division banners, most would hang conference championship banners. The Los Angeles Lakers, who are tied with the Celtics for NBA titles at 17, hung an in-season tournament banner this season.

Try that with Red Auerbach’s Celtics — a puff of cigar smoke would’ve flown in from the top of the Garden to prevent that from happening. Famously, this franchise hangs only championship banners.

The New York Knicks have become rekindled on the national scene, with Madison Square Garden as the visual backdrop, and the Lakers are always on the "A" block of sports television shows, but within their respective city, the Celtics can’t escape what they mean to Boston.

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving works out prior to Game 4 of the NBA basketball finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Friday, June 14, 2024, in Dallas. (STF Photo/Julio Cortez)

Kyrie Irving, in the most affectionate, respectful way, called it a cult. Not in the Jim Jones kind of way, but in regard to the pressure and the expectations being real, with full buy-in.

“You have to show your respect here,” Irving said ahead of Monday's Game 5 of the NBA Finals. “I think that's what I struggled with initially, was figuring out how I'm going to be a great player here while winning championships and also leading a team and selflessly joining the Celtics' organization or the cult that they have here.

“That's what they expect you to do as a player. They expect you to seamlessly buy into the Celtics' pride, buy into everything Celtics. And if you don't, then you'll be outed.”

Then the Mavericks guard laughed because of where he sits with Celtics fans today.

“I’m one of the people that’s on the outs.”

To his credit, Irving didn’t go out of his way to ingratiate himself with the Celtics culture when he was traded there in 2017. He’s publicly admitted his mistakes during his two years with Boston, and of course, he was excoriated for not treating the franchise with the reverence it’s held in.

But as hard as it was for Irving, even if he was merely resistant, it’s hard to contextualize to someone like Jayson Tatum what it meant to be picked by the Celtics in 2017. There was the running joke that “he’s only 19” that lasted for about five years, but he really was 19, a year removed from high school, when Celtics culture came calling.

Jaylen Brown had already been in Boston for a year, and the Celtics were just starting to ascend to competitive status in the conference.

Those two have been in the crucible for many years and have seemed to grow into it rather than shun it.

It’s one thing to know who Larry Bird is in the overall NBA lexicon and to know Bill Russell is a historic figure in terms of American sports, but it’s hard to expect someone to just have an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise just because it’s held in high regard.

Most of their 17 title banners occurred in a different NBA, and although their most recent title has been given legs as if it was dynastic, that 2008 team won just one title, and it happened 16 years ago.

“I had no idea who Cedric Maxwell was. I thought he was just like a radio guy [laughter],” Tatum said Sunday. “I didn't know that he played on the team, and he won Finals MVP.”

Maxwell probably wouldn’t make the Celtics' all-time starting five or even second five, but he’s loved for playing a part in two of the three Celtics titles in the '80s, and to Tatum’s point, winning Finals MVP in a year when Bird was on the team and a top-two MVP finisher.

So yeah, it is very different here.

“I definitely would have taken time to know the people in the community and talked to some of the champions that have come before me and actually extend myself to them instead of the other way around, expecting them to be there giving me advice,” Irving said. “Because they have been through this. They have championship pedigree here. They have shown it for years. They are one of the most winningest franchises in all of sports.”

Both Irving and Celtics guard Jrue Holiday were traded to the Celtics to be the missing piece, and both can speak to how unique it is to play under these lights. Irving, of course, played with LeBron James in Cleveland, and that brings its own set of scrutiny, but it’s not as heavy in that city as it is to play for the Celtics.

“I don't think anybody will know it until you play here. And that's not even just for somebody like me,” Holiday told Yahoo Sports on Sunday. “I don't think anybody knows that type of pressure that you get when you're signed to a team like the Celtics.”

You’re not just competing against the team across from you, or the other teams in the conference to get to the Finals. You’re competing against ghosts.

“I mean, you hear about it and you hear it, and obviously I know about the legacy and all that how great of a franchise this is, but I don't think you ever know until you actually are a player here,” Holiday said.

With a 3-1 lead, Holiday is firmly positioned to be the second missing piece on a championship team in four years after helping the Milwaukee Bucks win a title in 2021.

“From Day 1 it’s been about business here,” Holiday told Yahoo Sports. “I wouldn't say that it wasn't like that in Milwaukee, but it's different because they've been — I mean, many years — they've been very, very close to winning that 18th banner, but since I've been here, it was about 18.”

And even though Game 4 was a hiccup, the Celtics are still more than very, very close to claiming another banner — they’re on the doorstep. And the heat of Boston is on their necks.