Kyrie Irving came to Boston with a pristine reputation as an offensive marvel, an unstoppable force at point guard because of his ballhandling ability, shooting skills, and knack for finishing at the rim in traffic.
That’s the Irving the Celtics knew they were getting.
They also knew Irving left Cleveland with the reputation of an absent-minded defender, hardly imposing on that side of the ball. Irving either didn’t give enough effort on the defensive side or took too many chances for risky steals because of his lack of confidence in staying in front of his man.
The Celtics are not asking Irving to be Avery Bradley, but they are asking him to think defense first because that’s how this team is going to flourish.
Boston enters Wednesday’s matchup with the Sacramento Kings with five consecutive wins, and it’s because of the defense.
In six seasons with the Cavaliers, Irving’s defensive rating (number of points per 100 possessions with him on the floor) was 109.
This season, his defensive rating is 97. And Irving, who has never averaged more than 1.5 steals in any season, is third in the NBA with 2.43, a testament to guessing right more often and his increased effort and improved positioning.
“Aw man, it’s our staple,” Irving said of the defense. “Our defense sometimes has to be our best offense when we’re not able to score on certain possessions. We understand that, but when you have the luxury of having some of the guys out here that have the length and the defensive understanding, it makes our jobs a lot easier to go out and execute on that end of the floor.”
The Celtics have emerged as one of the league’s better defensive teams. They entered Tuesday’s play second in points allowed, sixth in opponents’ field goal percentage, and fifth in opponents’ 3-point field goal percentage.
There were going to have to be some serious changes in approach once Gordon Hayward went down with his serious left leg injury. The Celtics were not going to be able to rely on outscoring teams on a nightly basis and they were going to have to compensate for Hayward’s length in defending shooting guards.
Nothing but length surrounds Irving in the starting lineup. The Celtics have given opponents trouble because of the ranginess of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Aron Baynes. That has helped Irving be more aggressive and get away with some of those chances he takes on defense.
“Staying active on the basketball, being able to be at the top of the key, as well as impact the ball off the ball ,and understand that my defensive pressure can be an aid for us to get timely stops throughout the whole entire game,” Irving said. “Each possession matters. When we’re playing against great teams, going against guys that have a lead guard or team that has a 6-foot-8 point guard, I’m able to do different things.”
“Like I said it’s definitely a luxury to have guys that length on this team that are able to cover up for our mistakes and me able to get my hands on the basketball a few times and turn them into fast breaks.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens appreciates the effort, it’s what he expected. But he lauded Irving’s execution. The Celtics don’t need him to be a stopper but he can’t be a liability if this team wants to achieve its lofty goals and reaching the NBA Finals.
“He’s playing both ends of the floor really well, and he’s really — he’s really — you know, when you’re guarding all those high screens in the NBA that’s not easy,” Stevens said. “And he’s doing a good job of knowing when to peel back and switch. He’s doing a good job of chasing when he needs to chase, he stays in plays, he gets his hands on balls; he got a couple more balls [Monday].
“I think we can continue to get better at finding him on offense and figuring out what our spots are for him, but you can tell he’s getting more comfortable every time he takes the floor.”
Leadership was one of the responsibilities Irving wanted to assume when he bolted Cleveland for more independence. And Irving’s teammates are looking to him to lead on both sides. Isaiah Thomas tried hard on defense, even though he was a liability at 5-9. Irving is 6-3, so on many nights, height isn’t an excuse.
Perhaps there are organizations, such as Houston, where players (such as James Harden) can be excused for not trying on defense because they provide so much offense. But it appears Irving wanted to be pushed on that side of the ball. He showed with some of his defensive stretches against Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals that he’s capable of providing resistance and getting stops.
In the Celtics’ first seven games, Irving has blended in perfectly with his defensively invested teammates and it has resulted in five consecutive wins.
“It’s just an adjustment to what I am part of in the Celtics culture,” he said. “There is no individual goals first. I understand that and that’s something I couldn’t wait to be part of. These guys in this locker room make my job a lot easier. It’s fun playing with these guys and I never take that for granted.”