Celtics

Celtics still have much to prove

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Celtics still have much to prove

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

MIAMI With all that the Celtics have gone through over the past four years, the city of Bostons far beyond overreacting to one bad loss. But that doesnt take away from the fact that Sundays 99-90 defeat in Miami was especially bad.

The Cs may have crawled back within single digits before the final buzzer, but the game itself was never really in question. The Heat took control from the opening tip, executed their game plan almost at will, and exposed the Celtics in ways we all feared they were capable of.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade dominated the action and dictated the tempo, and in the process raised the game of some of their less-talented teammates (I said "some," Mr. Bosh). When the benches were injected into the mix, the Celtics still couldnt keep up.

For 48 minutes, the speed and athleticism thats become the calling card of this Heat team far surpassed the grit, guile and wisdom of the Celtics. In fact, if you were watching the two teams for the first time, youd have sworn it was Miami that had played together for so long, experienced so much and was so impervious to the insanity of playoff basketball. The toughness? That edge the Celtics have always held in the postseason? For one night, it was gone. In Miamis possession. They were the enforcers. They were the Celtics and the Heat at the same time.

Throw in the fact that Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett never really showed up, and Paul Pierce only did so sporadically before being tossed, and the Celtics never had a shot. At the end of the day, it was nine points, but it was so much more.

But then again, it was only one game. For all that happened, and all the bad vibes that came flowing out of South Beach, the Celtics are only down 1-0. Its the same place they were exactly one year ago today, the morning after dropping an eight-point decision in Cleveland in Game 1 of their second-round series with the Cavs. We all know how that worked out, so for that reason, and many, many others, no one will write the Celtics off after their most recent Game 1 debacle. To do so would be an insult to all this team has accomplished, and an oversight of all that Miami hasnt. Maybe you cant sit here and say with confidence that the Celtics will come out like gangbusters on Tuesday, but you cant rule out the possibility. For the optimist, thats still the expectation, but even the pessimist has to leave the window open. After all, these are the Celtics. Theyve made us look like fools before.

But before looking forward to Tuesday, its probably worth taking a quick look back. Not too far, either. Just to the Knicks series.

Im not sure anyone ever completely grasped what went on there, or was entirely sure what to take from it. On one hand, it was a sweep; the only sweep of the first round. What more could you ask for, right?

But there was also a weird sense of uncertainty that lingered from that series. The underlying feeling that even in winning four straight, the Celtics never looked completely in sync.

That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 1, before Doc Rivers and Ray Allen barely saved the day. That they were unbelievably close to dropping Game 2, despite the Knicks playing without two of the three proven players on their roster. Game 3 was impressive, definitely the most promising of the four, but in that last game, against a team that had nothing left to play for, the Celtics still gave you plenty of reasons to scratch your head. They won four games, but who they beat and how they did it was never entirely satisfying. Of course, you could never complain. You dont complain about a sweep. Thats be like bitching about a few hours of rain on your vacation. Sure, its not ideal, but you still spent the day getting drunk under a cabana instead of sitting at your desk playing Angry Birds. Its still great.

But even if we werent complaining, we were certainly allowed to question how much, if anything, those wins meant to the big picture; if the Celtics were, in fact, that much better than they were at the end of the season. And Sundays loss to the Heat didnt do much to answer those questionsor at least not in the way you wanted.

Of course, I still picked the Celtics to win this series in seven. I did, and still do think that they have what it takes to get to Chicago, but no one can ignore the fact that if you take away those four whatever-they-were wins against the Knicks, the Celtics we saw on Sunday looked a hell of a lot like the team we saw lose the last time they were in Miami. Back when everything was a mess, every loss meant the end of the world, and we were convinced that, even at their best, Boston no longer had the firepower to contend with the healthier, stronger and more dynamic Heat.

Again, maybe that was just for one night.

Or in this case, now two.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

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Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

BOSTON – For most of this NBA season, the narrative surrounding the Celtics has centered around the maturity of their young players.

Well, there's a much bigger tale of growth on this team. But we're not talking about rookie Jayson Tatum or second-year wing Jaylen Brown.

We're talking about Kyrie Irving, whose desire for growth fueled his decision to want out of Cleveland this past offseason.

And that growth has in turn sparked the Celtics to what has been an unprecedented run of success.

"He's doing things that we never saw when he was in Cleveland," one league executive texted NBC Sports Boston. "He always had great talent, but could he lead a really good team? I think we got our answer now."

The Celtics (16-2) boast the best record in the NBA, which is amazing when you consider Gordon Hayward broke his ankle less than five minutes into the season opener. Not to mention they lost their first two games.

Literally all they've done since then is win.

Boston's 16 straight victories is an NBA record after losing the first two games of the season. The winning streak ranks as the fourth-longest in franchise history.

And while the pieces to Boston's success vary, the man whose growth has been at the epicenter of the Celtics' emergence as a title contender has been Irving.

You can count Mike Brown, Irving's former coach in Cleveland, among those impressed with the growth in Irving on all levels.

"To see Kyrie taking ownership of not only little things offensively, but even on the other end of the floor, leadership and all that other stuff ... I'm happy for him, I'm excited for him," Brown, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, told NBC Sports Boston. 

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While his numbers have taken a slight dip here in Boston, Irving seems to be better in tune with what he needs to do to positively impact the play of his teammates and the team as a whole.

In Boston's 110-102 overtime win at Dallas on Monday, Irving had 47 points, the most he's scored as a Celtic.

His scoring binge included 10 points in overtime. 

And when talking about his monster scoring night, Irving provides a clue as to how his approach to the game has changed over the years in terms of scoring.

Irving described his breakout scoring night as something that "was called upon," adding: "I don't think I needed to score over 20 or 25 in particular games. So I think if you would have asked me that question probably a few years ago, I would probably tell you that I would definitely be trying to get 40."

Earlier this season, Irving talked about developing some bad habits early in his career because his primary goal, like most high draft picks, was to get buckets. That frequently led to the ball sticking in his hands too long, or him having to force up shots and not getting his teammates involved as much as he should have.

While some chalked it up to him being a selfish player, Brown saw it differently.

"A lot of it was his youth, which is more than understandable," said Brown, who coached Irving in Cleveland during the 2013-14 season. "When he first came into the league, he had played 11 games in college. Before that with high school and AAU, for a guy that talented, it was pretty easy for him. He could go out and get 40 and win and not have to focus on anything else."

Brown recalls one of the early challenges with Irving was getting him to get his teammates involved more consistently.

"One of the things I used to always hit him with, he can score and finish in a crowd like no other, especially at his size," Brown recalled. "He draws a lot of attention. I always used to tell him, whether it's the strong-side or the weak-side, guys in the corners are wide open when you dribble-penetrate because you are such a dangerous finisher."

There would be film study to illustrate this point. It would show just how easily Irving would get to various spots on the floor by breaking his defender down or splitting an upcoming double team. But it would also show that when he made his moves in traffic, far too often his head would be down, which is why he wasn't finding teammates open.

Brown pointed this out as an area Irving needed to get better at if he were going to continue ascending up the point-guard stratosphere in the NBA.

"And you know, he got a little better at it," Brown said. 

Today?

"I tell you right now, he's a double-edged sword," Brown said. "Now, not only can he finish in traffic, now he's finding guys in the strong-corner. He's finding guys in the weak corner. And he's finding guys that are in the slots above the corner on the wing. To see him make that pass with such ease and precision right now, at least for me it's a joy. It's a joy for me because it's something I knew he could do. As a young man in high school and AAU, he's probably thinking, score, score, score. So that's not something he developed growing up, at least he didn't show to me. Now to see him do it, it's beautiful."

It certainly has been for the Celtics, who are off to their best start under fifth-year coach Brad Stevens. Stevens has found a way to blend his system, which is heavily predicated on ball movement offensively and the ability to switch frequently on defense, with Irving's immense individual talent. So far at least, has been a good fit for all involved.

"Kyrie is trying to do his role to the best of his ability," Stevens said. "Obviously, his role garners a lot of attention because he scores the ball and he has those moments where he mesmerizes everybody with his ability to score the ball and handle the ball and stuff. He's trying to do all the little things. It's a brand new system. There's going to continue to be an adjustment period for him. But he's done a good job."

Listening to Irving talk following the win over Dallas, it's clear there's a considerable amount of thought on his part given to how he'll attack defenses even though we're talking about split-second, on-the-fly decisions.

"It just happens," Irving said when asked about his best scoring night as a Celtic. "Just the flow of the game, understanding where spacing is, where the shot is going to come from, when it's time to put the foot on the gas pedal, being aggressive and take advantage of certain things I was seeing out there. But my teammates did a great job of continuing to pressure the basketball."

And he continues to provide both strong play and leadership, which have moved the needle closer to him achieving what he was seeking when he asked the Cavs to trade him during the offseason.

"This was literally a decision that I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward," he said earlier this season.

Watching him inside the Celtics locker room and on the floor, it's clear that he's having a good time out there.

And his career going forward? 

Irving's impact on winning has positioned him to where a strong case can be made for him being a top-5 league MVP candidate.

Following the Dallas win, Irving was serenaded by fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P'" which certainly brought a smile to his face and was somewhat unexpected considering Boston was on the road.

"It's pretty awesome," Irving said of the chants. "But we got a long way to go."

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