Celtics

Bruins show a champions' poise in forcing Game 7

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Bruins show a champions' poise in forcing Game 7

WASHINGTON DC Things werent trending all that positively for the Bruins headed into the third period.

The score was tied at 2-2, of course and the Bruins were still hanging with the Washington Capitals while their Verizon Center home was rocking. The Caps had just outshot the Bruins by a 15-5 margin in the middle period and the Bs had frittered away a four-minute power play created when Alex Ovechkin gashed Zdeno Chara in the forehead with a high stick.

In an elimination game where Bostons playoff lives hung in the balance, things probably could have been moving in a more positive fashion. But thats when the Bruins hunkered down, tapped into their previous Stanley Cup-winning experience when their collective backs were against the wall and started treating things on the ice like it was go time for the reigning champs.

It certainly keeps your heart rate down, said a smiling Andrew Ference after he potted a pivotal third period rebound goal that allowed things to go to overtime. Thats probably the biggest thing with playing in a lot of pressure situations and playoff games. Its hard to play in them when your heart beat doesnt slow down and youre sweating twice as much.

While Ference brings 105 games of NHL playoff experience to the table and certainly isnt fazed by big game situations or elimination scenarios -- and even tosses the occasional unintentional bird out there at a particularly relentless crowd even relative newcomers to the postseason way of life can feel the difference. Gregory Campbell had never been to the playoffs before logging his 25 games of experience with the Bruins en route to the Stanley Cup last year. But he more than made up for it with a career full of experiences in last years sprint to the Cup, and recognized the quiet determination running their locker room headed into Sundays third period and overtime sessions.

The Bruins didnt know whether they were going to win or lose, but they werent going to blink when it mattered. Ference scored his goal to give the Bruins their go-ahead chance in the third period, and the Bs refused to fold when Alex Ovechkin tied it back up with a missile off an offensive zone face-off.

Its huge. For teams to win you always hear people resort to the face that we have experience. Fortunately we have a team-full of experienced players right now, said Campbell. Its not a guarantee, but it certainly is a huge help for us to have been through so many things during the playoffs: Game 7s or being down in series.

The playoffs are a roller coaster of emotions and were just riding the wave. Not only has the series been up and down, but every game has been up and down. Its been back-and-forth, and the key to it all is to remain calm.

That calmness was coming through loud and clear as the Bruins outshot the Caps 3-1 in the opening minutes of overtime, and they were simply looking for their first opening to force a Game 7 back in Boston. Seguin supplied that chance with a calm, poised, confident move setting up the overtime score that personified the champions swagger heading into the extra session.

The best part about Bostons heart of a champion coming to the forefront: the Bruins should have a distinct advantage on Wednesday night at TD Garden after taking home three Game 7 scenarios last year.

It comes into a factor if you use it the right way. The same goes for Game 7, said Ference. Maybe we can draw on some of that experience and ride that line of excitement and keeping your wits about you.

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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