Not much about the Celtics’ win streak made sense. As it stretched on for a 16th straight night against Dallas, Kyrie Irving provided the firm answers an efficiency-challenged team needed offensively.
Take this play, the wildest of the season. Straight out of a 2K game, with the Celts pressing “A” excessively, Irving initially chucked the ball over everybody, save for Jayson Tatum’s outstretched (gadget-esqe) arm. Marcus Smart, missing all night, shot again inside and almost lost the rebound out of bounds. For the second straight play, he flung the ball aimlessly to the perimeter. This time it landed in Irving’s hands.
Just gonna assume Tommy Heinsohn had to consult a doctor 4 hours after trying to decide who got the Tommy Point on this play. pic.twitter.com/TXgtM1C33Q— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) November 21, 2017
The only sequence that registered in anyone’s mind watching it unfold was Irving’s finish. He’s done it all season, beginning to carve out production deep into the fourth quarter as his niche. If Isaiah Thomas was the “King in the Fourth,” Irving has been the “Father of the Final Five.”
In 42 minutes of play within five points in the last five minutes of games, Irving is shooting 24 for 39 with 65 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers. He sits above LeBron James (64) for most in the NBA, and Boston is outscoring its opponents by 25 when Irving is on the floor in those circumstances.
He also leads the team in deflections (56), ahead of Smart (49).
The stats aren’t nearly as stunning as the situation playing out live was against the Mavericks. Irving had an answer for everything on a night where the defense sputtered and the pressure shifted to the offense to take on the winning load.
From the start of the fourth quarter on, the Celtics trailed by as many as 13 points throughout the quarter before forcing overtime. Then Dallas put Boston down four, only to see the Cs scorch back again and win handily by eight. The comebacks came courtesy of the type of volcanic scoring outburst fans have come to expect from Irving.
Irving proved to be both assertive and unpredictable, starting and finishing by backing Dallas down at its weak point—its point guards and interior.
That’s all Irving needed: one basket or look down the stretch of games to begin pouring it on. The two free throws got him up to 32 points, and over the next 11:30 he’d score 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
Attacking the defense head-on, Dennis Smith Jr. tipped his shot, then Irving ran into a turnover next possession. He had a similar bad stretch in the second quarter vs. Philadelphia as well. These are the kind of moments that almost pull the game out of reach for Boston, until Irving perfectly melds his ability to attack the defense head-on with an emphasis on spreading the wealth.
Irving fed Tatum on the run in transition after Marcus Morris saved the game with a three-point put-back. Smart found Tatum again on the run, then down six, Irving almost threw the ball and game away. Tatum chucked the errant pass across the court backwards, Smart caught it and soon did the same before it landed in Irving’s hands. Somehow, with 3:00 left and game slipping away again, Irving grabbed it back.
With his touch back, Irving begins his shift in the post where Yogi Ferrell has no chance one on one.
Backed down by Nowitzki minutes later, Irving made the most important play of the night. He slipped around Nowitzki’s back, stole the ball, and pressed in transition, where he found Tatum for the game-tying alley-oop that forced overtime.
That win streak has since ended, but the Mavs win that extended it solidified Irving in a place of comfort juggling facilitation, defensive intensity and overwhelming scoring. He’s posted 23-, 30-, 25- and and 36-point nights since then with a one-game outlier of 18 (courtesy Avery Bradley). His consistency against teams below .500 has helped avoid slip-ups.
“If teams don’t double him,” Al Horford said after a win over the 76ers to cap November, “he’ll make them pay.”
The dividends come in the form of scoring and assisting.
Irving is combining a career-high 6.1 offensive box plus-minus (points per 100 above average league player) with a 33 assist percentage. In his own sphere he’s showcasing the immense balance he’s capable of beyond the isolation-heavy game that marked his Cavaliers career.
The analytics compare relatively close to Isaiah Thomas’ 2016-17 season, without the sheer magnitude of scoring (Thomas was an 8.7 offensive box plus-minus). That portion of Irving’s game has caught up in recent games to the passing and defensive progression, but his role is different.
In 2016-17, Thomas headed a team that gelled for almost two whole years. Now, Irving leads a group of rookies and new acquisitions attempting to develop a new system.
It shows in his approach. Everything is in flow. He makes sure others are getting touches and then hones in on attacking late in games. He’s able to sit out for long stretches then return and unload in fluid succession as he did vs. Philadelphia. There are few emergency insertions needed.
Against Philly, Irving displayed 4-of-5 shooting with 13 points created over the first ten minutes. Then he sat for over seven minutes. Going into the half, he was 3 of 7 for nine more points. Out of halftime, 3 of 6 for eight minutes. Over nine minutes of rest followed, then back for the final 6:30, when he had 2-of-4 shooting with 2 assists.
Once the fourth quarter hits: “It’s go time.”
“Just ultimate freedom,” Irving said of the fourth quarter. “To really showcase what you’ve been working on because you know you’re going to get the team’s best shot on the other end... you have to make very, very quick decisions of what you’re going to do with the basketball and where guys need to be on the floor... some guys think a lot quicker than others. I was just fortunate that my mind works a lot quicker... in the fourth quarter.”
It’s fun to compare Irving to Thomas. The similarities and contrasts are striking. Marcus Smart even commented on the overwhelming scoring of I.T. forcing others to get caught watching. Irving’s capability is fixated on dribble control, navigating through spaces and making plays through the flow of the game.
Take this one, a read and react. It’s a simple enough pass from a double, but his threat sets up an easy chance to create. It’s the space Horford referred to in his quote.
As Irving’s three spheres of influence further solidify into one package, as the Cs witnessed against Philly, Boston may not have the league MVP, but they do have everything they need at point guard to accomplish team-wide growth this season.