The Boston Celtics’ uneven first half of the 2018-19 regular season has inspired no shortage of hot takes. The team has undoubtedly fallen short of preseason expectations that saw them ranking among the Eastern Conference’s elite, and this has led to a somewhat understandable desire to search for scapegoats. Just about any player on the team has spent their ignominious time in the low-light, but as the Celtics limped through an ugly 0-3 stretch over the past week, the focus has shifted — for arguably the first time — to the team’s top player: Kyrie Irving.
“Maybe the offense just flows better if he’s not taking all the shots,” some have speculated. “Maybe Terry Rozier’s improved performance as a starter illustrates how Irving holds him (and everybody else) back.” More, uhh, prominent figures have suggested drastic measures, like trading Irving to the Los Angeles Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and filler.
If Boston’s victory over the Toronto Raptors proved anything, it’s that these people are fools who should not be trusted. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine an individual performance — both on and off the court — that could have addressed so many concerns so thoroughly.
I’m not even really going to talk to you about Irving’s prodigious scoring ability. That’s beyond obvious. Since the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court, everyone has known full well that Irving is an immensely gifted offensive player who can score from basically anywhere. The dramatic, Curry-esque three-pointer that he drained to essentially put the Raptors away for good is the kind of shot we generally expect from a player as talented at scoring the basketball as he is. Kawhi Leonard, one of the best one-on-one defenders in basketball, gave Irving a mere moment of opportunity, and Irving took complete advantage. That’s what premium scorers do.
Instead, what impressed me most about Irving’s performance against Toronto was... well, just about everything else. Outside of his 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting, Irving dished a career-high 18 assists, grabbed five rebounds (two offensive) and tacked on a steal and a block to his stat line. It was one of his most complete performances since being traded to the Celtics two summers ago, and felt like the culmination of season-long growth on the basketball court, growth that has perhaps gone a little unheralded as the team has fallen short of expectations.
For starters, Irving has simply applied himself on defense to a greater extent than he ever has in his career. Last season, his effort was certainly apparent, but his execution was sorely lacking. This year, he’s combined both. His +0.7 defensive box plus-minus (per Basketball Reference) ranks far and away as the best of his career — and the only time he’s ever ranked outside the negatives. He’s contesting as an on-ball defender as well has he ever has, while also picking his spots and challenging passing lanes smarter than ever, leading to a career-high 2.5 steals per 100 possessions.
That extra effort on the defensive end has bled into other aspects of his game. All those little, extra things that you love Marcus Smart for? Irving’s been doing them too. He’s tied for ninth in the NBA in total charges drawn (9), right there with Smart himself. He’s also enjoying the best rebounding season of his career by far, bringing down a career-high 7.3 total and 1.8 offensive boards on the season. He’s never really been known for his prowess on the glass (as most slim, 6’3” scoring guards are not), but he’s no fool. With an improved focus on hustling to the ball in every phase of the game, he’s developed an underrated knack for extending possessions with savvy plays on the offensive glass.
Irving’s career-high 18 assists will be the most obvious talking point about his game against the Raptors, and, boy, what a passing display it was. Irving was at his absolute, table-setting best, balancing his typical scoring load (a team-high 19 shot attempts) with some of the best dimes of his career. It was clear we were in for something special from the jump, as he used one of his customarily absurd dribble moves to set up Horford for a wonderfully routine dunk.
This proceeded for the entire night. When a highlight reel of a player’s assists last for nearly over two full minutes, you know something special has developed. You could very confidently view it as a very loud, very obscene hand gesture to long-time critics of his traditional, score-first approach.
And finally, of course, there’s the leadership aspect. Perhaps the biggest issue that Irving has fallen into question for this past week has been his frequent, public comments about the team’s performance. At various times throughout the season, Irving has called attention to the Celtics’ younger players, Gordon Hayward, and the team’s veteran leadership, something that has been seemingly been received poorly among both players and fans. In post-game interviews, Irving addressed the issue as convincingly as everything he addressed on the court.
“That was a learning experience for me, being the in the position of really realizing the magnitude of my voice and what I mean to this group of guys,” said Irving. “I want to see them well, and in order to do that, I’ve gotta empower them. You know, [Jaylen Brown] was right, I’ve got to do the right things and not point fingers at individuals and realize what we can do as a group.”
It can’t be understated: this was an exceptionally rare interview from a player as highly regarded as Irving. You can complain about how he’s composed himself publicly this season — and you wouldn’t be entirely off-base for doing so — but this was a unique statement. However you interpret his subsequent comments about LeBron James (and I regard them as a positive), this remains an undeniable sign of growth for Irving, both as a leader and as an individual.
There are many reasons Danny Ainge cashed in his chips for Kyrie Irving two summers ago. Wednesday night against the Raptors, just about every single one was on display. While the 2018-19 Boston Celtics Experience hasn’t exactly lived up to most of our expectations, the team is still very much lurking behind the present upper-echelon of the Eastern Conference — Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana and Philadelphia — with solid footing in a head-to-head respect against each. The book on this season is far from written, and if the rapid maturation of the Celtics' franchise player is anything to go by, the only direction to go from here is up.