CLEVELAND — It seems the Celtics made the intelligent decision in picking their poison for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They chose to blitz the best player on earth (LeBron James) and place the scoring onus on a three-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year. Kyrie Irving delivered with 30 points on 11-for-21 shooting in Sunday’s 113-100 win, a fitting playoff debut for a player who exudes confidence and wows with his skills.
There are few more accomplished players in the NBA at Irving’s age (23). He has established himself as one of the league’s more prolific scoring guards and put up monumental numbers in his first three seasons with the Cavaliers — without James.
The presence of James this season affected Irving in many ways. Irving no longer needed to be the primary scorer or even ball handler because James would assume both of those responsibilities. But Irving couldn’t just take James’s passes off double teams and launch 3-pointers. He had to become more of a distributor with James and Kevin Love on the floor.
“We all have our egos,” Irving said. “We all have things that we want to accomplish but I think the biggest thing for us is taking care of each other, throwing yourself into the game and being there for your teammates. We had all those expectations for the season — who’s going to have the ball? Who was going to do this? Who was going to do that? Now it’s the postseason and whatever it takes to win, I’m willing to do.”
Irving tied for 22d in the NBA in assists this season; he is not a true distributor but he had to become more of a facilitator in the Cavaliers offense, and eventually he would be rewarded with the type of open shots he received in Game 1.
The Celtics had to make a difficult decision entering this series. They could have shaded Irving and allowed James more offensive freedom, which usually provides unfavorable results for the opponent. So in Game 1 the Celtics turned James into a facilitator.
“They showed me different looks in the post, they brought a double team on the perimeter,” James said Monday. “They forced me to my weak hand. They tried to make me a passer for most of the night and that’s fine when I have the complement of guys who can make shots and make plays.”
What makes Irving so difficult to defend is his ball-handling skills, which allow him to dribble penetrate. And when a defender takes a step back in anticipation for that first step, Irving hits a 3-pointer. He finished 11th this season in 3-point percentage at 41.5, making him a difficult cover.
“It’s difficult, he’s a very good player,” Celtics guard Avery Bradley said. “But at the same time, I feel like as a team you have to come together and try to make everything hard on him. We have to do a better job on Tuesday.”
Perhaps Irving’s most notable feature is his confidence. He entered the NBA having played just 11 college games at Duke because of a toe injury, his abbreviated résumé creating a lot of unknowns.
Irving was the No. 1 overall pick and played himself into the Rookie of the Year award with a brilliant first season. That confidence was apparent and promoted on a video clip when Team USA was preparing for the 2012 London Games.
After a break from a scrimmage between Team USA and the USA Select team, which featured a 20-year-old Irving, there was an exchange between Irving and Kobe Bryant, then a 33-year-old superstar and five-time NBA champion.
Irving challenged Bryant to a game of one-on-one, prompting the dismissive Bryant to laugh. Bryant, before his rash of injuries, was a top-five player and Irving had just completed his rookie season on a 21-45 team. Irving wouldn’t back down, convinced he could score on Bryant.
“I did see the clip,” James said. “When he was on the Select team and playing against us, I thought he was very, very good and very special and could be very, very good in our league from that point. He’s a confident kid, a kid that believes in his ability. He works on his game and he goes out and lets it show. I’m glad to be on his side.”
Cavaliers coach David Blatt is impressed with Irving’s bravado as well.
“[Game 1] was a continuation of what has already been a really great season for him,” Blatt said. “Kyrie is a veteran NBA player, although he’s young. He’s a guy who can play on the big stage, obviously because of his abilities, his belief in himself and the confidence his teammates have in him.”
So the Celtics are faced with another quandary in Game 2: Allow James to become more of a scorer and smother Irving, or bank that Irving doesn’t convert on his first five 3-point shots, like he did in Game 1.
“The biggest adjustment for me going into Game 2 is every single possession matters,” Irving said. “You want to be better. I’m just glad I got Game 1 out of the way, all the nerves and just coming out aggressive. Game 2 will definitely be an adjustment period. Game 1 was strictly a learning experience.”