The Boston Celtics’ win over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night wasn’t what you’d call the cleanest of victories. Fresh off a grueling four-game road trip on the opposite end of the country, with several key contributors limited or out due to illness, the Celtics understandably looked a little sluggish — and against the precocious Kings, sluggishness can often mean doom. Sacramento repeatedly bludgeoned the Celtics in transition, and raced out to double digit leads in the first and third quarters, repeatedly beating down Boston’s attempts at a rally.
In other words, it felt like a classic let-down game for a team returning home from a successful road trip. It might have been exactly that if not for Kyrie Irving.
With seven minutes left in the game and the Celtics clinging to a 104-101 lead, Irving checked into the game for the final time. Over the next 4:40 of game time, they outscored the Kings 16-7, and Irving scored or assisted on every single Boston bucket, putting the game on ice for good. For your viewing pleasure, here’s what every point in that run looked like.
6:05 — Irving warps between De’Aaron Fox and Nemanja Bjelica into the lane for a four-foot floater. Fox — who is quite a good defender — ended up victimized by an unfair amount of these plays.
5:42 — Irving assists a Marcus Morris and-one layup. This is a simple pass, but a good one. Irving recognizes that he has two men in front of him — Fox and Bjelica, once again — and finds the mismatch: Morris on Willie Cauley-Stein. Morris takes advantage, drives to the rim, absorbs the contact and comes away with three points after the free throw.
5:15 — Irving nails a 14-foot fade away. This is what I’m talking about with poor De’Aaron Fox. The Celtics ran some off-ball action to get Irving a one-on-one match up off the feed from Marcus Smart, and Fox stays right in his face, defending the look as well as anybody possibly can. It just doesn’t matter, because Irving is a bona fide bucket-getter.
4:55 — Irving blocks a Bjelica layup. This is a bit of a chaotic play. Irving grabs one of his ten rebounds off an airball from Buddy Hield, but Fox pokes the ball out of his hands before he can make a move, directly into the arms of Bjelica. Irving keeps his head on straight and gets a hand on the ball before Bjelica can get the layup off cleanly. This was credited as a block, but might be more of a strip. Either way, it’s a smart defensive play.
4:33 — Irving weaves through traffic again, this time for a 16-foot jumper. Again, Fox just doesn’t stand a chance here. Watch how Irving guides him into the screen from Al Horford, then slithers past Bjelica into daylight. It’s actually remarkable that Fox manages to put himself back in good position so quickly and calmly, but he may as well have not even been there, for all the good it did him.
3:32 — Another simple but effective pass from Irving to Morris, this time for an open three. Like before, Irving recognizes that the Kings have brought the double-team against him, and like before, he knows he has a mismatch to exploit with Morris against Cauley-Stein. This time, Cauley-Stein sags off a little bit to stay in better position to challenge the drive, so Morris takes the open three instead.
2:51 — Irving finds Jaylen Brown across the court, who posts up Hield and hits an exceptionally sharp fade away jumper. This is the play that probably has the least to do with Irving, as Brown ultimately made the outstanding move. Still, the Kings continued to ride or die with the Fox-Bjelica double-team on Irving, and he made the right play to find Brown in the corner, forcing Hield — not the greatest defender around — to rotate over to pick him up.
2:20 — Finally, the exclamation point on the run: Irving finds Horford for the alley-oop over Cauley-Stein. This is just flawless execution in the pick-and-roll, the kind we’ve come to expect from the Irving-Horford pairing over the past two seasons. Irving puts Fox on his back shoulder, ambles around the screen and recognizes that he has Cauley-Stein’s full attention, freeing Horford to receive the lob. An easy two points, and a Sacramento timeout ensues. The Celtics lead 120-108.
This has been one of the most impressive stretches of the Celtics’ season, with wins in four of their past five games over tough Western Conference competition. Curiously, however, prior to Thursday it felt as though Irving hadn’t been quite at the center of it all. He was masterful against the Los Angeles Lakers, but posted a quiet (for him) 19 points in the team’s domination of the Golden State Warriors, and missed last week’s victory over the Kings with an injury. His averages for the month of March are solid as ever — 23-7-10 on 49/38/86 — but he hasn’t necessarily had many of those “KYRIE!” moments to which we’ve become so accustomed. He’s played well, but it’s been a balanced team effort that has powered the Celtics to their successful March.
In posting the second triple-double of his NBA career and guiding the Celtics through that near flawless fourth quarter run, then, Irving offered a strong reminder of how utterly important he is to this team. It wasn’t his most efficient performance — primarily due to a 1-for-9 mark from the three-point arc — but he contributed in every phase of the game and made the plays the Celtics needed when they needed them.
This is what Kyrie Irving brings to the table. He’s the backbone of the Boston Celtics, and when the playoffs finally arrive, these close, late-game scenarios will be all the more plentiful. Thursday night against the Kings, he showed us just how ready he’ll be.