BOSTON — Not everyone in Boston is happy with Kyrie Irving. Even after a 37-point Game 2 performance to power the Celtics past the Indiana Pacers in comeback fashion, it’s always easy to find the latest Irving detractor claiming he’s not the answer for the Celtics.
Kyrie was “incredible,” according to Celtics coach Brad Stevens. It’s a correct assessment, because Irving was brilliant. But there are skeptics everywhere. Kyrie, perhaps, knows that better than anyone. And in this post-truth world, it’s easier to understand why seemingly indisputable facts are still in question, but that only makes it more worth saying: Kyrie Irving is the best chance the Celtics have at a title, right now and moving forward.
The future is always alluring, and despite constant rumors about a player like Anthony Davis getting to Boston and the desire for more, Irving is healthy, and he’s the most important player on the floor in this first round series. After a Game 1 rock fight where the Pacers wilted in the third quarter, they staged a Game 2 performance that required Irving’s consistent brilliance. He delivered on Wednesday night in a way that could set the tone for Boston’s postseason run this spring.
“I was trying to put as many points on the board in the third quarter as I could because we didn’t sustain ourselves well as we would have liked,” Irving said on Wednesday night. “But that happens sometimes, and you’ve got to weather the storm.”
Irving was the shelter from that storm on Wednesday, as the Celtics saw some of the same struggles against the Pacers defense as they did in Game 1. Irving had 18 in the first half and 10 in the third quarter. But the points seem to matter more in the fourth, and the Celtics trailed by 12 at home Irving was on the bench early in the fourth. When he re-entered the game with with 7:35 left in the game, the deficit was just four.
There are a number of factors that lead to an abrupt comeback, like the absence of Myles Turner on the floor for Indiana. He left the game with Irving to start the fourth and came back on the floor after the run. Celtics players couldn’t help but laugh when asked about Turner leaving the game. Irving said his eyes “light up” when he sees Turner leave the floor, and the Celtics certainly took advantage of him getting some rest.
“He was making me miss at the rim,” Irving said, noting a few times how much he respects Turner’s presence on the floor. “There were a few plays at the rim where I’m wondering when Myles is going to come over. He just makes me miss. When he goes out you see that the momentum was shifting.”
The difference between the Celtics and Pacers in the first two games of the series is easy: Indiana doesn’t have a player like Kyrie Irving. The Pacers’ counterbalance to Kyrie, Victor Oladipo, is hurt. The Celtics understand how difficult it is to win playoff games without their best player, as they were in that situation last year due to Irving’s knee issues.
A group effort, and the emergence of Terry Rozier at the guard position, brought the Celtics to within a game of the NBA Finals. But this year is different: The Celtics have Irving, a player good enough to mask issues that pop up — the primary one now is that Marcus Smart, Boston’s best defender, is out with a torn oblique.
It was good execution, and a complete breakdown by the Pacers, that led to Jayson Tatum’s dunk to essentially seal Game 2 after the Pacers threw away an inbound pass with the Celtics up three. But when the Celtics needed someone to make winning plays down the stretch on Wednesday, it all seemed to come from No. 11.
Irving left the Cleveland Cavaliers in search for something all his own, and after a year in Boston cut short by injury and a second season filled with growing pains, we’re starting to see signs that the struggle has been worth the progress. His presence in the fourth quarter was nothing short of magnificent, and a reminder to fans of what Irving can do in big postseason moments. A reporter reminded Irving after Wednesday’s game that he’s had this kind of performance against the Celtics, and now he’s put up something similar wearing green and white. It’s a distinction that Irving certainly understands.
“It’s been a long journey from having those two knee surgeries and watching the team last year,” Irving said. “And finally getting the chance to lace them up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA Playoffs, there’s nothing like it.”
It’s an admittedly boring answer from a unique player like Kyrie, but he later spoke about the “lineage” of Celtics greats that he’s following in Boston — the championship banners and retired jersey numbers and all that. These Celtics are his, sure, but it’s fair to be skeptical of whether he’ll ever reach the rarified air that includes the players you immediately think of when you hear “Boston Celtics.” This is probably why the folks at the bars nearby showing Bill Russell and Larry Bird highlights on a loop are constantly searching for something more.
A season of struggles amid moderate success has fans in Boston questioning his leadership and ability to take over games just moments after he dominated one the Celtics easily could have lost. Irving didn’t hear the exact conversation at TD Garden I heard on Wednesday featuring one of his skeptics, but he’s clearly gotten the gist elsewhere over his first two years in Boston.
“They want everything to be perfect and that’s just not the reality of the game,” Irving said of Celtics fans. “But we’re doing our best to go out there and really lay it all on the line. We put ourselves into the game and we hope for some great results. We just have to have some honest resolve, but it felt good. It felt good to be here in this position and playing in this arena.”
Irving knows it will be impossible to please everyone in Boston. He’s always going to rub people the wrong way, and he’s still going to be himself. He initially described having a big game for the Celtics as “pretty peaceful.” A day later, he was seen carrying a National Geographic family atlas under his arm for the flight to Indiana. Kyrie will always be an outlier, but he’s the outlier the Celtics need, one who is clearly capable of filling the vacuum left by LeBron’s departure from the East.
The numbers, not words, are the best way to make fans happy anyway. Scoring 37 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a 99-91 win. A 2-0 series lead. It’s all a good start, but Irving noted that you don’t have to “score a bunch of points to make an impact on the game.” He’s stressed multiple times that doing “the little things” is what matters most in the postseason, not transcendental talent.
“Screen for each other, make sure we’re very communicative on the defensive end. Make sure you’re there. That’s what’s going to get you to the next level,” Irving said. “Now it’s about going on the road and doing the same thing.”
Execution is one thing, sure, but it always feels like the talented forget to credit what makes them great. When the Celtics have been truly special, though, it’s through Irving that they’ve had both.