Kyrie Irving has never been known as a good defender. Prior to last season, per Basketball-Reference, his best individual defensive rating was 106, which he matched last season. This year Irving is posting an individual defensive rating of 100, which tops his career defensive rating of 109 by a large margin. It’s still very early, but there’s a reason for his success so far this season.
Around the beginning of the season, Irving talked about the need for him to give a better effort on the defensive end. He recognizes the long-held belief that he dies on screens, doesn’t close out to shooters and gives up on mismatches against bigger players. Irving came around some last year. Playing with anywhere from three to four very good defenders at a time, he was able to hold his own. The Celtics switch-heavy scheme, one that relies on jump-switches and switch-backs as much as any team in the NBA, helped keep Irving out of poor matchups as well.
But for a team with NBA Finals aspirations, just holding his own wasn’t going to be good enough. Irving knew that he had to raise his level of play on the defensive end of the floor or Boston might not go as far as they’d hope. And at some level, Irving likely recognizes that the Celtics know they have other options they can turn to for stops at the point guard position.
Boston posted the NBA’s best or second-best defensive rating as a team in 2017-18, depending on which stat site you like/trust most.1 The Celtics did this with Irving healthy for the bulk of the regular season. Oddly enough, per NBA.com, the Celtics defensive rating actually improved by 0.1 when Irving played. Essentially, the Celtics were just as good with Irving on defense, as they were without him.
Solid performance or not last year, Irving was regularly on the bench when Boston needed stops. With arguably the NBA’s best perimeter defender in Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier, who is no slouch himself, Brad Stevens has options to turn to. As Rozier’s offensive game developed, it was no longer a liability to have him on the floor on that end anymore either. To put it simply, if Irving wanted to close games, he had to get better on defense, and he openly recognized it.
However, it’s one thing to talk about showing better effort. It’s a whole other thing to actually do it. Tigers rarely change their stripes, especially after seven NBA seasons. While recognizing all of the “It’s early. Let’s see him do for 82 games” qualifiers, Irving really does seem to be playing with better effort. When the Celtics snapped the Milwaukee Bucks season-opening seven-game win streak, Irving’s better effort showed up multiple times.
On this play the Celtics are in a bit of a scramble defense. Irving ends up with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the paint. This usually results in him giving ground and letting Antetokounmpo score. Instead, Irving gives a great effort. He first gets in the passing lane, making it a tough catch for Giannis. Then he stays actively involved as Al Horford comes over to help. Eventually, Antetokounmpo brings it down to Irving’s level and he strips him clean for the steal.
Remember how he doesn’t close out hard on shooters? Boston’s NBA-best three-point defense demands that everyone close out hard and Irving gives a great effort here:
Irving is already sprinting at Bledsoe on the catch. This doesn’t allow for Bledsoe to get off the corner-three. He ends up rushing his move and is called for a travel. This might seem minor, but Irving’s effort to get there forced this turnover.
This last one is the best one of the night. This is a play where Irving would have given token pressure and either flopped in hopes of drawing a foul, or would have cleared out entirely and let Middleton score.
Irving takes the hit to the chest, but holds his ground. As Middleton turns to shoot, Irving strips him. This knocks the ball loose and Middleton ends up landing out of bounds as he struggles to recover it.
What else is important to notice on that last play? This was in a two-point game with under one-minute to play. Stevens trusted Irving enough to keep him on the floor in a close game. Of course you want Irving out there on offense, but his play this year as earned him the right to stick in there on defense too.
Kyrie Irving is never going to be Marcus Smart, or even Terry Rozier, on defense. Those are two of the better defensive guards in the league. Stevens will continue to replace Irving on defense at times, as he did for the final couple of plays of this game. But by giving better effort, especially right off the jump in games, Irving puts himself in the mix to not be a liability on defense when it matters. That might make the difference in Boston competing for a championship versus being just another good team.
- NBA Stats had the Celtics second in defensive rating for 2017-18, while Basketball-Reference had Boston first.