In the early days of the Boston Celtics’ new season, much attention has been paid to Gordon Hayward and his comeback from the broken leg that cost him the entirety of the 2017-18 season. Hayward is off to a fairly rusty start in his first month back, and Celtics fans have been very patient with his limitations and recovery — and rightfully so. At the same time, it feels as though that patience hasn’t quite been shown to the other Boston star making his return from a season-ending surgery, too: Kyrie Irving.
The first six games of the season hadn’t been awful to Irving, overall — he’s had two games scoring over 20 points, and acquitted himself well as a facilitator (dishing at least five assists in every game) and a defender (relatively speaking). In terms of plus-minus, it’s been an even split: three games in the positive, three games in the negative. For most players in this situation, that’s a pretty acceptable outcome; for Kyrie, after the lofty standards we’ve come to expect, it’s felt like a bit of a let-down.
The Celtics’ seventh game, though — last night’s rematch against the Pistons — served as exactly the reminder Celtics fans may have needed: Kyrie Irving is still a superstar.
In any situation, be it the regular season or the playoffs, consecutive games against the same opponent are no small task. The strategies you employ in the first game will be endlessly dissected, right up until tip-off of the second. That’s exactly how last night’s game played out: though the Celtics came away with a second win, they had to sweat it out until the closing moments of the final quarter, rather than laughing their way to a 20-point rout like they did this past Saturday. The difference lies entirely with the changes and adjustments between each team.
The biggest thing that changed last night? Kyrie. Last night was effortlessly his most dominant performance of the new season. He foreshadowed it for us early on, quieting muttered concerns over his explosiveness with yet another ludicrous highlight attacking the rim midway through the first quarter.
While his nine first-half points were undoubtedly encouraging, it wasn’t until the second half that Kyrie finally revealed his final form, so to speak. His fingerprints were all over the Celtics’ second-half success; when they outscored Detroit 25-13 in a dominant third quarter, Kyrie matched the Pistons point-for-point, scoring 13 himself. His most noteworthy moment came last in that quarter, as he nailed three straight three-pointers in the span of less than two in-game minutes — the last of which being a pull-up that would make even Stephen Curry blush.
The Celtics faltered early in the fourth quarter, quickly allowing the Pistons back into the game. But when the Celtics sent Brad Stevens into rage mode after over six in-game minutes without a made field goal, it was — of course — Kyrie who broke the slump, promptly bringing home a driving layup.
It wasn’t just Kyrie’s heroics as a scorer that powered the Celtics to the narrow victory, either. While he would finish the night with a season-high 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting, he also drove the Celtics forward in more tertiary ways. His five assists may not have popped in the box score, but the ways he accumulated them did. He displayed a valuable willingness to pass up his own shots in favor of better ones for his teammates, even on a night where he clearly had the hot hand and with a decisiveness that proved invaluable in breaking down Detroit’s defense.
In the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, he’d do exactly that once again, drawing the Pistons’ undivided attention before dishing the ball to Jaylen Brown for a dagger(ish) triple.
Kyrie’s effort also shined in ways that didn’t reflect in the box score. The Celtics would finally close the door on the Pistons on the back of yet another super-human hustle play by Marcus Smart, who pounced on a bad pass from Blake Griffin to force a turnover — but who was it that corralled Smart’s loose ball? I suspect you already know the answer.
As the Celtics have struggled with general inconsistency — especially on the offensive end — to open their season, it’s become all the more apparent how much further they still need to progress before they’re truly “playoff-ready.” Luckily, then, they have quite a long time to work things out ahead of them — and quite a long time for their two biggest stars to work themselves back into game shape. This season will be a slower progression than we might have expected, but at 5-2, the Celtics certainly aren’t suffering for it all that much.
In the short term, last night, it was fitting that it would be Kyrie Irving with the ball in his hands in the final moments of a hard-earned Celtics victory. You can bet it won’t be the last time that’s exactly the case.