In taking a commanding 2-0 series lead against the Toronto Raptors in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the Boston Celtics have asserted their place as a championship contender, further highlighted by Jayson Tatum’s growing stardom and reinforced that in 2020 there are no pre-ordained outcomes in any of these series.

They’ve also told anyone not paying attention that Kyrie Irving was, in his time as a Celtic, a net negative. His absence, clearly, has been as positive for Boston as Kawhi Leonard’s exit for Los Angeles is suddenly catching up to the Raptors.

It’s no secret around the NBA that Irving was less than universally beloved in that Celtics locker room. 

Irving is a star, sure. A playmaker, no doubt. A mesmerizing talent, clearly. But Boston is and has been better without him and that, too, says something about the often-mercurial and oft-injured would-be superstar. 

This series is not over, and the Raptors are not to be overlooked, even down 2-0. But Boston is now on the verge of making three consecutive Eastern Conference finals when Irving is either injured or elsewhere.

And this time, if Boston does advance, there won’t be LeBron James waiting to put an end to the run, at least not in the conference finals. Boston’s championship dreams have two fewer hurdles — the absence of LeBron out East, and the absence of Irving in Boston.

Remember, in 2017, with Irving still in Cleveland, the Celtics advanced to play the Cavaliers in the ECF. They did it again in 2018, with Irving injured, this time taking LeBron and Co. to seven games. 

What became of Irving’s arrival when he actually played postseason basketball for the Celtics, after he forced his way out of a Cavs organization that was still contending for titles? Acrimony, locker room tension, and a second-round exit last year to the Milwaukee Bucks in just five games.

Irving is a great player. But he was never a great Celtic, not in the way that matters — which is marshalling not just his talent but the talent of his team and binding them together in pursuit of a championship. LeBron can do it, despite the difficulties of playing with him. Kawhi can do it, despite his unique personality. Stephen Curry can do it. Irving has not.

With Irving, Boston was listless and unhappy. Without him, it has looked like ready-to-go contenders.

Kemba Walker has been a vast improvement at point guard, arriving this season without the same depth of skills (though he is still great) but armed with something Irving has always seemed to struggle with: The ability to blend in, to fit in, to say nice things instead of criticizing teammates over and over, including this gem while a Celtic: “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship team.”

Well, they do now: It takes Kyrie Irving being elsewhere.

Walker is a different kind of teammate, a great player, yes, but also a likable locker room guy, a balm instead of a bully.

Case-in-point was the comment Walker dropped Tuesday after the win about his teammate Marcus Smart, who had 16 fourth-quarter points against Toronto: “I ain’t ever played with nobody like Smart,” he told reporters. I ain’t never met nobody like Smart. … Anybody that watches him play, knows him, has ever played with him, knows there’s nobody like Smart. Any time we’re going to war I’ll take him on my team every day of the week.”

Can you hear Irving saying such things? Me neither. My memory of Irving as a Celtic is summed up in that ill-fated series against Milwaukee last year in which he shot 35.6 percent from the field and an abysmal 21.6 percent on 3s on 21 shots per game — let that sink in — and then oozing insouciance about the whole thing.

The Celtics, those around the team will tell you, are happier this season with Irving gone. And it’s showed so far in the playoffs.

But it’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, each freed from playing with Irving, who have blossomed the most, and pushed Boston forward. They have emerged as stars, unfettered by Irving’s off-court criticism and on-court ball dominance. 

There were signs this would happen. In the 2018 playoffs, with Irving injured and out, Tatum’s scoring in the playoffs jumped to 18.5 points per game from 15.7 during the regular season. Brown went from 14.5 to 18.

Young players and role players are supposed to be less effective, not more, in the playoffs. But with Irving out, we saw what they would become.

All of this makes me wildly skeptical that Irving and Kevin Durant will live up to expectations with the Brooklyn Nets. But that’s unproven, and uncertain. We will have to wait and see.

If Boston closes out this series, time will have told that tale: The Boston Celtics will be better without Kyrie Irving, a fact that may end up saying more about Irving than his former team.

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