Kyrie Irving is glad to get that first playoff game as a Celtic out of the way
After the Celtics disposed of the Pacers, 84-74, in Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series Sunday, forward Jayson Tatum was asked if nerves might have contributed to the team’s slow start.
This is Tatum’s second season, but he is still just 21 years old, and perhaps a spotlight game such as this one can cause some angst.
“Uh, probably for some guys,” Tatum said. “I mean, Ky said he was nervous, excited.”
Ky, as in Kyrie Irving? Ky, as in the All-Star point guard who hit the winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals?
For Irving, there is a lot riding on these playoffs. He missed the postseason last year after undergoing knee surgery, so this is his first series as a Celtic. And it is the first time that he is the face of a franchise chasing a title.
This is what Irving has wanted all along. But new pressures come with this role.
Furthermore, as the Celtics stumbled through a bumpy regular season, Irving was consistently the one to say that everything would be fine when the postseason arrived, in large part because he is here to make sure of it.
“Getting all those jitters out for the first game, I’m always happy just to get the feel-out game out of the way,” Irving said, “and just now you can really see where you can improve and where you can take advantage of weak spots.”
Irving was not at his best offensively in Game 1, although few were in a low-scoring mud fight. He made 6 of 17 shots and had 20 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 turnovers. The Celtics outscored the Pacers by 19 points during his 34 minutes on the court.
The Celtics won despite shooting a season-low 36.4 percent from the field, and prior to Sunday they had been winless when scoring less than 100 points this season. But their defensive stands were notable, particularly given the absence of their defensive heartbeat, Marcus Smart, who is out indefinitely with an oblique injury.
When Irving completed his postgame interview with TNT Sunday, he said he missed having Smart at his side. Ever since Smart entered the starting lineup in late November, Irving has praised him and said how he simply makes life easier.
But Smart’s return date is not known, so Irving made it clear that he is prepared to at least attempt to mimic some of what Smart brings to the defense. He had a team-leading five deflections, he was tied for the team lead with two steals, and the Pacers made just 5 of 15 shots when they were being defended by him.
“I just think that just on the offensive end there were going to be some things that were going to happen,” Irving said. “But defensively I knew that our length, our versatility were going to be a positive for us, especially in this series.”
Of course, it is quite likely that Irving will still have games in these playoffs when he pours in points the way few players can. But it is good for him to know that he will not necessarily need to.
His leadership also will be important during these playoffs. Unlike many of his teammates, he has seen it all and been through it all and is prepared to guide them through uneasy moments.
In Sunday’s game, forward Jaylen Brown was whistled for a technical foul after shoving Pacers forward Bojan Bogdanovic with 3:20 left in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was certain. Brown was clearly frustrated, as he approached the referees and made it clear that he was retaliating for an earlier act by Bogdanovic that they had missed.
Irving helped take Brown away from the situation. He could be heard saying to Brown, “Keep your head! Keep your head! We’re in a series.”
Later, Irving expanded on that.
“Just anything can happen,” he said. “So in that moment, I was just like, ‘JB, you’re good, we understand your frustration, but now it’s just time to move on to the next thing.’
“That’s always going to be my advice for everything throughout these series. It’s like, anything can happen, anything can impact the game, you never know. So, just control what you can control and just go out there and perform.”