Kyrie Irving delivered a classic playoff performance
Kyrie Irving pledged the playoffs would be different than a sub-par regular season for the Celtics for one simple reason. He was here. It was a declaration of defiance, issued in February, that he could take his game and his team to another level at will. It’s not bragging if it’s the truth.
Irving proved his own bold words prophetic on Wednesday night in Game 2 of the Celtics’ first-round series with the Indiana Pacers, as the Celtics seized a 2-0 series lead by following his lead. Irving was a maestro, and the basketball was his baton. He dropped 37 points on 15-of-26 shooting and added 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a steal.
You wonder why the Celtics tolerate Irving’s capricious nature, trenchant critiques of younger teammates, and leadership missteps? He showcased why in Boston’s 99-91 victory at TD Garden. It was the moment we’ve all been waiting for since his introductory news conference in September 2017, the unleashing of Playoff Kyrie for the Good Guys. This was peak Irving, as he terrorized and mesmerized the poor Pacers in the same manner that he used to toy with the Isaiah Thomas-era Celtics.
“It felt good to be here in this position and playing in this arena,” said Irving, a playoff bystander last year after an infection in his knee. “It’s just been a long journey from having those two knee surgeries and watching the team last year. And finally having a chance to lace ’em up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs there’s nothing like it.”
Irving’s full repertoire was on display — pull-up jumpers, slithering drives, fantastic finishes, and dagger 3-pointers. The juxtaposition between the Celtics and the Pacers when the tide turned against them was as obvious as the fact that Indiana had no answer for Irving. When the Celtics need points they can let Kyrie create them out of thin air. When the Pacers need points their offense vanishes into thin air without injured All-Star Victor Oladipo.
Irving is the difference between the teams and in the series. This was a tough night for “the Celtics are better without Kyrie” crowd. The heterodox hoopster is as difficult to guard on the court as he is to decipher off it. He’s worth it.
“He’s special. He does some really amazing things out there,” said Jayson Tatum, who complemented Irving with 26 points. “It’s good for us to have him as a leader, somebody that’s been there and done it before.”
Let the record show that Irving might have been the headliner on Causeway Street, but he wasn’t a solo act. Tatum scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, including the 3-pointer that put the Celtics up for good with 50.8 seconds to go. None of that would have mattered though, if Irving didn’t keep the Celtics afloat when the Pacers were on the verge of pulling away in the third quarter, building a 12-point lead.
The Celtics led, 52-50, at the half after Irving hit a one-handed, show-the-ball drive with 1.5 seconds left, the last of his 18 first-half points. But the Pacers pushed back in the third quarter. One game after shooting 2 of 19 and scoring their fewest points ever in a quarter in the playoffs (8), the Pacers seized control with a 29-point third that featured 50 percent shooting. It didn’t remotely resemble the same team that tossed rocks at the rim in Game 1.
The Pacers led, 72-60, when Irving went into takeover mode, scoring Boston’s final 8 points of the quarter to give him 28 after three quarters. He scored on a behind-the-back drive, drilled a pull-up 3-pointer, and then drained another trey off a screen. He also negated a Terry Rozier turnover — one of five in the quarter for the profligate Celtics — with a block on Tyreke Evans.
Irving is the type of transcendent talent, the type of stabilizing force that can prevent a snowball from becoming an avalanche. The Pacers simply don’t have that luxury, which this time of year in the NBA is actually a necessity.
“I was trying to put as many points on the board as I could in that third quarter just to sustain something for us,” said Irving. “We didn’t start off as well as we would have liked. But that happens sometimes. You got to be able to weather the storm. I think we did a great job of that tonight, everyone. It wasn’t just about putting points on the board. It was just about doing the little things. It was a gritty win. We understand the team that we’re playing against, veteran team. So, we’ve got to stay locked in, and I think we did a great job of that.”
The fourth quarter was a case study in the importance of having a shot-maker and shot-creator like Irving to bail out your team. The Pacers put four players in double figures on this night, led by Bojan Bogdanovic’s 23 points. But they had nowhere to turn when they hit a biblical drought.
On cue Indiana’s effort turned into a cold case, their offense missing without a trace in the fourth. After an Evans 3-pointer put the Pacers up, 82-70, with 11:20 to go, Indiana played like the hoop was hermetically sealed as the Celtics surged ahead with a 16-0 run. The spurt was highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Irving, the last of which, a bloodless pull-up in front of the Indiana bench over NBA blocks leader Myles Turner, restored the lead for Boston at 84-82. Kyrie then added a patented step-back jumper to cap the run.
Meanwhile, the star-less Pacers missed 10 straight shots in the quarter before Wes Matthews connected on a 3-pointer with 3:26 left to cut the deficit to a point.You bet that Indiana coach Nate McMillan would have traded contending with any of Irving’s idiosyncrasies or inscrutability for his ability to make scoring look as innate as breathing as McMillan’s team labored through a 4-of-17 fourth quarter.
It was clear that Irving relished this performance on the parquet. He called it “peaceful,” and added, “I think that I’m just happy to be part of the lineage that have put on some unbelievable performances here in the TD, as well as in the old Garden. It’s really special to know that the fans here are rooting us on.”
This hasn’t been the smoothest betrothal between Irving and Boston this season. His impending free-agent decision has weighed on Celtics fans and hovered over Irving expectations all season. Both sides wanted this season to be perfect. But Irving pointed out that perfect simply isn’t the reality of NBA basketball.
If there’s a segment of Celtics fans that don’t want Irving to re-up, that blame him for a disappointing regular season, then they better realize that playoff performances like Wednesday night’s go with him.
Irving has built his resume on elevating his game in the postseason. Celtics fans know this. They’ve been on the wrong end of his brilliance.
The view from this end of a classic Playoff Kyrie performance is a lot better.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.