Kyrie Irving is becoming exactly the kind of role player Celtics need him to be
This season has been a major transition for Kyrie Irving and it has little to do with returning from two knee procedures that cost him a chance to lead the Celtics in the playoffs last spring.
The team around him is more talented than when he arrived in Boston. He no longer needs to carry the offensive load, but he still has the same skill set, even more enhanced now that he’s healthy. So there are going to be nights such as last Saturday, when his offensive services were not required.
Irving scored just 3 points in the Celtics’ 20-point win over the Pistons that night, and said he had no issue having such a minuscule role in the offense. And then there will be nights like Tuesday, when the Celtics needed the dazzling and masterful Irving against the same Pistons team.
The Celtics knew this would be a better test, and Irving was brilliant in his 33 minutes. He scored a game-high 31 points —
15 more than any teammate — as the Celtics held on for a 108-105 win at TD Garden.
The fact Irving doesn’t need to be dominant offensively on a nightly basis serves as a relief. He wants to be the Celtics’ cornerstone but fully realizes that teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are catching on fast and deserve their own nights to lead.
Irving has no intention on demanding more shots or taking away from teammates just to pad his statistics. Will that alter his image around the league as one of its best offensive point guards? Perhaps. But there is a satisfaction in 1) being a better all-around player and giving increased effort on defense, and 2) winning without having to exert maximum offensive production every night.
Irving is just 26 and this leadership thing is rather new. He was part of the equation in Cleveland but he always had to divert to LeBron James and that visibly bothered him, even in his career-defining moment, when he drained the winning 3-pointer to beat the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
So annoyed with playing Robin to LeBron’s Batman, so disenchanted with the possibility of spending future years in that role, Irving admitted earlier this month that he wasn’t as emotionally invested in celebrating his accomplishments because he hadn’t yet maximized his leadership skills and felt trapped in Cleveland.
He has expressed his glee with how limitless his opportunity in Boston has been.
He has even committed to re-signing with the organization long term, knowing Tatum and Brown will continue to develop into cornerstones and All-Stars. He’s fine with sharing the stage.
“My focus became not just so much on myself but how I become a better leader for this team,” said Irving, who added five assists and five rebounds. “If that meant sacrificing a game or two to really emphasize moving the basketball and getting these guys going, then so be it. That’s the unique challenge for me is finding that balance, when to put the pedal to the gas and where to find that balance.
“It’s still a task, ongoing, but I’m more than willing to face [it]; I’m enjoying it. It’s not going to look pretty every night. It’s good to have a few shots [fall] but my teammates did an unbelievable job of continuing to exude that confidence even the first few games when I wasn’t shooting [well]. It’s fun to play basketball like that.”
If the Celtics are going to challenge the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, they have to become more like the Warriors. For example, Klay Thompson canned an NBA-record 14 3-pointers Monday in a blowout win over the Bulls. Former MVPs Kevin Durant scored 14 points and Stephen Curry had 23.
Thompson attempted four more shots (29) than all of the other four starters combined. It was his night and teammates continuously kept feeding him the ball, knowing Thompson was in a special rhythm. The next night could belong to Durant or Curry or even Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala.
The wealth is spread and everybody is happy. And then there’s the alternative, such as the responsibility on Kemba Walker in Charlotte. He is second in the NBA in scoring at 31.7 points per game, yet the Hornets are 4-4. If Walker isn’t spectacular, then Charlotte generally doesn’t win. That’s tremendous pressure.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens knew a breakout night from Irving was coming, and was heartened to see it arrived on a night when teammates combined to shoot 39.7 percent. But Stevens was more relived to see how Irving handled his 3-point game Saturday and there wasn’t a hint of resentment that he had so little of a scoring role.
More often than night, he will enjoy a hearty responsibility.
“So, I mean, he’s way too good of a scorer for the ball not to go in very long, and that stuff all evens out all the time,” Stevens said. “And, I said this just now in [the TV] interview: The best part about [that game] is it was all about team and that wasn’t just in the media. It was in the locker room, it was on the bench, it was during the game. He’s doing a great job of leading, and the ball will go through the net. That’s inevitable.”