Wednesday night’s rematch in Miami wasn’t exactly a must-win proposition for the Celtics, but a loss against the Heat would have seriously put home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs in serious jeopardy. And yet, with 2:40 left in crunch time, Brad Stevens sat Kyrie Irving.
To that point, Irving was leading the team in scoring and a big reason why Boston had a ten-point lead. To a larger point, it’s Kyrie Irving. It’s moments like this why Danny Ainge traded for the 27-year-old perennial All-Star. Kyrie is the highest caliber of closers and on the road against a playoff-hungry team is a time for closers. Instead, Stevens substituted Terry Rozier for Irving and Kyrie never got back in the game.
When asked after the game why he opted for Rozier over Irving, Stevens responded with a very sound and rational explanation.
“Five fouls and we were up eight or ten and we needed stops at that point. All I could think of in my mind was the play where Dragic just drove it a hundred miles an hour and drew a foul on Hayward at the start of the fourth and I think they would have tried to go right at that,” Stevens said. “So, if it had gone back to a five-point game or a four-point game, I would have called a timeout and gone right back with him, but we needed stops and we kinda held them at bay at the end of the game.”
On the sideline, Irving was the first guy standing up after big play after big play, plays we’re frankly accustomed to seeing him make:
In a league that often recognizes and rewards ego and bravado, Stevens’ decision could have been met with resentment and doubt. Earlier in the season, this could have been a problem (and often times was), but as the Celtics head into the playoffs, it sounds like past history is water under the bridge and the star player-coach dynamic couldn’t be in a better place.
“Our relationship has just grown tremendously, just in terms of our communication of what he likes and what I like, but ultimately what’s best for our team and how to get the most out of guys,” Irving said. “It’s made my job a lot easier, going to the sideline knowing that we’re on the same page. That makes it easier to go out there and play free and really doing my job of leading this team.”
The elephant in the room is Irving’s impending free agency and what his relationship with Stevens means in terms of his future with the Celtics. Skeptics will attempt to decipher the word “tremendously.” Does it mean “enough?” Optimists will point to Stevens’ record of getting the best out of his veterans, including Irving himself and arguably the best regular season of his career. Pragmatists will say that at this point right now, Boston is in a better position than they’ve ever been all year and for a player and coach that have been pushing this team to reach its potential, that’s all that matters.