Celtics

It's the Celts' home opener, and the heat's still on

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It's the Celts' home opener, and the heat's still on

With all the fanfare and embarrassment of Opening Night out of the way, its time for the Celtics to get down to business. Tonight, theyll host the Mil-ay-wa-kay Bucks at the Garden, and in a weird way, theres far more on the line than there was on Tuesday in Miami.

Thats because on Tuesday, the Celtics had nothing to lose. This explains why, in the aftermath of the ugly loss, we all spent far more time obsessing over KG snubbing Ray and Rondo fouling Wade than we did anything pertaining to the actual game. I mean, what were you going to say? They lost to the best team in the NBA, playing with a roster of guys who barely know each other, and with a Kevin Garnett who clearly needs a little time before finding his rhythm within the flow of regular-season basketball. Okay. Whatever. Its over.

But in terms of tonight, the Bucks are obviously not the Heat. The Bucks are a franchise thats registered only one winning season over the last 10 years and hasnt won a playoff series since some dude named Ray Allen led them to the Conference Finals back in 2001. This year, theyd be happy with an eighth seed. The bar isnt set very high.

With Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the starting backcourt, the Bucks will push the tempo tonight, which should allow the Celtics to spread their newfound young and athletic wings. It will give Rajon Rondo a chance to run; perhaps more importantly, it will give Jeff Green a chance to run and shake off the rust from his Miami mess. However, Milwaukee also arrives with some significant size. Samuel Dalembert, Drew Gooden, Ersan Ilyasova, Joel Przbilla and Ekpe Udoh all stand 6-foot-10 or taller and will all figure into Scott Skiles' rotation, which might force Doc Rivers to make some adjustments. (Chris Wilcox, anyone?) The Bucks big men also present an interesting dynamic within their own team, between the run-and-gun guards and the more stationary front court. Merging those two styles will be one of the toughest tasks on Skiles' plate this year.

But regardless of how the Bucks attack Boston, the Celtics should be able to handle it. If they just play their game, if they execute on offense and make the basic rotations on defense, they should win. They will win. And if thats the case, everyone can move on from the Miami loss with the confidence that things are moving in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Bucks will assume the role of the Celtics from earlier in the week. What can we say? We lost on the road to one of the best teams in basketball . . . in their home opener!

But in the event of a Celtics loss, there will be no escape from the disappointment; no hiding behind the drama that comes with flagrant fouls and reunions gone wrong. If they lose, all anyone will want to talk about is why and how and what is wrong with this team. It will be obscenely early to get carried away, but I dont think that will stop us.

And thats that. Opening night at the Garden. The hype leading up to tipoff might not match what we all experienced on Tuesday, but the aftertaste of a loss will be far more sour.

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. 

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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