John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
The Celtics are 20-4 and continue to be the feel-good story of our sports region. They took care of business Saturday afternoon, beating the woeful Phoenix Suns, 116-111, in a rare Garden basketball matinee, which gave thousands of kids a chance to watch the Green Team at a family-friendly hour.
As we toss our verbal bouquets at the feet of Brad Stevens, Danny Ainge, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and the rest, remember this: Kyrie Irving is the difference between this year and all those other years since the big rebuild began.
After the top-seeded Celtics were thrashed by Cleveland in the conference finals last spring, Ainge told us that the Celtics had plenty of “good” players, but needed more “great” players.
So he went out and traded for Irving, who is one great player.
Irving is the difference. He changes everything.
Take Saturday, for example. Stevens was trying to rest some of his starters, including Kyrie. He kept the supernova guard on the bench for long stretches. But when Phoenix cut the Boston lead to 6 with 4:37 left, Stevens summoned Irving from the bench. Irving answered the call with a stake-driving 3-pointer and a finger roll spin-o-rama layup off the glass in the final two minutes.
“Kyrie’s ability to make those shots with very little space is pretty impressive,’’ said Stevens.
“The most important thing is to build consistency,’’ Irving said after the win. “We have a few milestones that we want to hit. When you do that, you can start to develop from being a good team to being a great team. We still have a long way before anybody considers us a great team. We understand that, but when you’re hitting those marks every 10 or 20 games, then we start getting in that conversation.’’
What’s so great about Irving?
I asked a couple of the retired numbers.
Cedric Maxwell (No. 31): “He has the best left hand of a guy who’s not lefthanded of anybody I’ve ever seen. Larry Bird was great with his left hand, but Larry signed his name with his left hand so he was different. And Kyrie’s handle is the best. I played with Tiny Archibald and Tiny couldn’t touch Kyrie. When I see Kyrie I don’t think of anybody I know. I think of Marcus Haynes and guys with the Globetrotters. That’s what I think about. Tim Hardaway had a great handle and the crossover, but this dude [Irving], it’s like he’s walking around with the handle of a damn suitcase. He doesn’t even dribble.
“I also notice how laid back he is. I’m on the bus with him and there’s nothing pompous about him at all. He’s a smart kid. Everybody talks about Isaiah [Thomas] and Isaiah was great player for this team, but Kyrie Irving is a better player. If he is not the best point guard in the league he’s got to be the next best. So you don’t go too far by him at that position.’’
Tommy Heinsohn (No. 15): “I was very impressed the first time I saw him as a rookie. He came in here and turned a game around and took it away in the fourth quarter. And he was just a kid. You could see then his disposition and skill level. I think he got hindered in Cleveland from playing the way he likes to play the game. The other guy controlled everything [Tommy didn’t say, but I think he means LeBron James]. Every now and then it would be like, ‘Well, we need 2 points now, let’s give it to Kyrie.’ It was like giving the ball to Bill Sharman instead of Bob Cousy.
“I think Irving really enjoys playing the game. He’s probably the best guy at getting a shot he wants that we’ve ever had, that I remember. Bird and Pierce were great at that and the Little Guy we had last year. Isaiah was amazing. This guy has got all the shots.”
By any yardstick, Irving is one of the great below-the-rim finishers in NBA history. Heinsohn thinks he knows how Irving comes by this skill.
“Watch him an hour before the game when he’s out there warming up. He does something I’ve never seen and he does this religiously. He starts out lefty and righty, 10 feet from the basket, shooting the ball off the backboard. He’s been doing this, I guess, forever. So once he gets in there, he knows where to put it off the glass.
“In addition he’s got a personality like Pierce and Cousy. He wants to be the best. He has fun playing the game. He’s ever-competitive. The question was whether he’d be able to integrate into a team concept. He’s been great at that, and he hits the right button when you need to turn it around or put it away.’’
Ah, yes. The team concept. This was supposed to be the big hurdle with Irving coming to Boston. How could we trust a guy who did not want to stay with LeBron in Cleveland? Was Irving going to have difficulty assimilating into Brad Stevens’s system? Was Kyrie going to make problems by insisting on being “The Man”?
The Celtic won-loss record says there’s been no problem. Stevens, the great-grandson of Red Auerbach, is happy to amplify that answer.
“He’s very engaged in everyone,’’ said the Celtic coach. “Treats everybody the same from coaching staff to young players to old players to staff. He has a good energy about him and has been nothing but a great teammate in every which way, and I think that’s really important when you are heading into a new situation and all eyes are on you. People expect you’ll be in a leadership role, but there’s different ways to approach that and I think he’s done it by really embracing everybody and trying to be himself and be approachable to everybody. He’s been really good.’’
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