A fourth quarter surge salvaged a win over the Suns, but didn’t exactly generate more confidence in the Celtics as they continue their string of early-season inconsistency. Boston issued an all points bulletin from Micah Shrewsberry at halftime in Phoenix:
#Celtics change up the starting lineup a bit in the 2nd half: Irving, Smart, Brown, Hayward and Horford. Micah Shrewsberry told me, we’re just looking for 5 guys who’re gonna play hard... effort is non-negotiable.— Abby Chin (@tvabby) November 9, 2018
Kyrie Irving answered the call. Looking near peak form, he slashed through defenses, finished at odd angles, whipped balls to the perimeter between defenders — and into the crowd — while dropping 30-point bombs to drive the offense. Boston can survive the hottest Devin Booker nights on the back of a resurgent Irving, but the coaching staff’s continued souring at their performance insinuates they need more.
Tonight they’ll get a chance against the 5-6 Jazz on a back-to-back. Irving is out, attending his grandfather’s memorial. He reminded Gordon Hayward to shrug off any potential hate he receives from Jazz fans in his first return to Utah. Recently, he fired the ball into the crowd like a cannon following an embarrassing defensive performance against the Nuggets, taking aim at Jamal Murray and their rematch against Denver later in the season. Where he’s been able to, Irving’s done his part as a leader, even going back to his announcement that he’ll return to the C’s following his contract expiration at season’s end.
Now, he’s backing it all up on the court. Thirty-nine points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block on top of 6-for-13 shooting from outside all proved necessary to top a 2-9 Phoenix team. It wasn’t Boston’s best look, but it was Irving’s, negating another monstrous 38-point performance by the player famous for scoring 70 on the C’s before Irving’s arrival.
“I think that’s the most important thing that we’re starting to figure out is it’s not about who scores, it’s about the trust,” he said. “We made some strides.”
Irving’s making the most on less ball time, 5.2 minutes per game is about one below his average from last year. Touches have funneled to Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward and others further down the lineup. Boston’s become more egalitarian than ever with the rock, but the most effective offensive output has come through Irving taking over the past five games.
After scoring single digits in two of the Celtics’ first six games, Irving put up 30 in three of the last five, averaging 29.4 PPG on 55.9 percent shooting, 53.5 percent from three and 5.2 APG.
Getting comfortable and adjusted put the C’s back 20 points in the first half of the Phoenix game. Putting the ball in Irving’s hands and letting him rock put them in the win column.
The Suns had an 83 percent win probability at halftime. That rose to 96 percent before Irving cut off Booker and generated five points in rapid succession with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. Even Irving’s defensive box plus minus of +1.2 and 102 defensive rating in 11 games are career highs.
After posting 116 points in the overtime win, the Celtics still rank 27th in offensive rating, 19th in pace, 21st in effective field goal percentage, 26th in generating free throws per field goal attempts and three of their seven top rotation players are posting sub-100 offensive ratings.
It’s early, everybody’s breaking into the flow of the season but if Boston lost to the Suns alarms would’ve sounded. Instead, Irving escalated his time on the ball to 7.9 minutes, almost three above his average for the season. He created 0.4 points per touch, blowing his teammates out of the water.
Those extra minutes slashed off Hayward and Tatum’s time, resulting in eight and four points for them. Brown played off Irving to score his fifth straight double figure scoring night with 17.
In the past the Celtics have thrived off layers of ball-handling, but they’ve always had one clear leader in that category. This year, the leaderboard has spread minutes out further down the roster than ever.
The relegated minutes to Hayward make sense in his recovery, but despite his future promise as a playmaker, Tatum jumping over 2 minutes per game while averaging 2.6 APG doesn’t make much sense. So far, he’s averaging more than Al Horford’s 1.7 — a low for him in a Celts uniform.
Conserving and building cohesion throughout the year are the Celtics’ priorities more than grabbing the #seed, but Irving appears hungry for ball time and the Celtics could use some consolidation in that category. It’s the curse of a crowded roster, but Brad Stevens can solve it without trading Terry Rozier by shaking up lineups to coerce the ball into certain player’s hands.
The Celtics haven’t impressed on offense and Thursday didn’t encourage much hope, but it did at least remind us all that their lead scoring thrives in volume.