HOUSTON — Kyrie Irving’s emphasis on defense is no accident. The All-Star, Olympian and NBA champion said he’s made a concerted effort to become more engaged defensively, which has resulted in him averaging career highs in steals and rebounds.
Irving is tied for 15th in the NBA in steals at 1.65 and his 5.1 rebounds per game is 1.3 more than any of his previous seven seasons.
“It took me eight years, I just think my priority list is just totally different than it was when I was 19, 20 years old,” he said. “Not that I’m that much older  but the experience I’ve had being around a lot of great players, great people that have taught me things, just little things to help them be better on the floor and off the floor.”
Irving said he put an emphasis on getting in better shape to enable him to be more active defensively and still have enough energy to score and distribute.
“Just conditioning, I think that’s what it comes down to,” he said. “Just the responsibility we all have as athletes, like I said, I’m just not trying to be good, I’m trying to be great. I think the importance of seeing other guys, guys that have come before me in this league, that are two-way players, their impact on the game is just seamless. Even if they’re not shooting well, they’re able to draw charges, get steals, being able to be in the right defensive positions.”
Irving said the change was precipitated by experience. Younger players tend to shoot for personal goals. Veteran players shoot for team goals.
“I wasn’t really trying to have a focus on that as a young player,” he said. “I wanted to score a bunch of points and make All-Star games; just like that crap means nothing. As long as you’re making that impact on the defensive end and offensively, then there should be no excuse for the other guys on the floor to play [at] that level. That’s also part of leadership.”
Offense vs. defense
Thursday brought an intriguing matchup between James Harden, considered the best offensive player in the league, and the Celtics’ Marcus Smart, one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. There was mutual respect on both sides.
Harden scored 45 points in the Rockets’ 127-113 victory over the Celtics.
“Just his toughness, just his ability to stick his nose into everything,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said about what makes Smart a good defender. “Stamina. Strength and willing to do all the dirty work. He’s one of the better defenders in the league. He’s like P.J. [Tucker] for us. They do what’s needed. Some people have noses for the ball and situations that they can think their way out of defensively and he does that.”
Still, D’Antoni said he doesn’t believe any one defender can guard Harden.
“Now I don’t want to get too far ahead but you can’t match up with James,” D’Antoni said. “So it doesn’t matter. But [Smart’s] really good. I’m not trying to downgrade him, I’m just saying how good James is. Maybe instead of 40, [Harden] gets 35, which is pretty good. But James is a unique offensive player which I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of.”
Smart said he relishes the challenge of defending Harden, who averages just 19 points career against the Celtics, the second-lowest against any team in his career (Houston).
“Always, it’s a challenge every day, especially going up against the top-tier guys,” Smart said. “Especially Harden, who makes a living on the offensive end and somebody like me who makes a living on the defensive end, so it will be interesting and fun to watch and fun to go out there and play.
“He lulls you to sleep and tries to get you frustrated because he knows how to draw the fouls and how to get the calls to work to his advantage. You can’t just really let that get to you.”
The Celtics scratched rookie Robert Williams about an hour before the game with a sore left leg. Williams said he had no idea how the injury happened but he began feeling discomfort during shootaround. With Aron Baynes out with a fractured left hand, the Celtics are down to Al Horford and Daniel Theis as their only legitimate centers. Williams said he is unsure if he’ll be available Saturday against Memphis.
Baynes made the trip with the team to continue his rehabilitation and for moral support. Having a fractured hand, however, did not prevent Baynes from lifting a barrier pole that had fallen down as he watched the team’s shootaround.
Celtics forward Marcus Morris was ejected with 4:38 left in the game after drawing his second technical foul. Morris was called for an offensive foul for fending off Tucker on a drive to the basket.
Morris’ first tech came for delaying the game in the third period after he continued to dribble toward the other end of the court after being called for a foul during a steal attempt. It was Morris’ fifth technical of the season and his first ejection. He wasn’t pleased.
“Tucker is one of my better friends in the league,” Morris said. “Obviously I know [Tucker] flopped, because I didn’t even do anything. But I didn’t think the tech was needed. I didn’t say nothing.”
Morris thought the officials, who called three techs on Houston in a 61-second span of the second quarter, relied upon a quick whistle to control the game.
“The way I’ve turned the corner and not talked to the referees, I didn’t think I deserved that [second] tech, either one,” he said. “The [first one], I’ve seen delay of games called, and you give me a tech and I didn’t say a word?”
Harden was listed as questionable with a bruised calf but D’Antoni said there was no way he would miss a matchup with the Celtics. Perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul missed the game with a left hamstring strain . . . It was the second game for newly acquired Austin Rivers, son of former Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Austin made his debut Christmas Day and scored 10 points in Houston’s win over Oklahoma City. He had 10 points Thursday night, too.