Celtics

Irving's drive to succeed heads down new path without Hayward

Irving's drive to succeed heads down new path without Hayward

BOSTON –  It seems everyone is waiting for that breakout game by Kyrie Irving, that game when he puts the Boston Celtics on his back, carries them to victory and serves as a reminder to everyone why he’s a four-time All-Star despite being just 25 years old.

But here’s the thing.

He understands better than most that being a dominant, high-scoring guard isn’t what this is all about.

Irving loves to win, and he knows winning isn’t easy.

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And that challenge of trying to win at a high level is clearly something that excites him.

That’s why the biggest gleam in his eye following Tuesday’s 110-89 win over New York wasn’t when he was talking about Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s growth, or the budding chemistry developing between him and Al Horford.

It was when he talked about being on the road, and how much he loves to play on another team’s home floor.

“I love them; I love them,” Irving said of road games, failing miserably to talk about them and not have an ear-to-ear grin on his face at the same time. “I love playing at home more, but I love road games so much. It’s a test of character and you understand that. When teams go on runs or the calls may kind of be uneven, you’re tested in terms of will, guys in foul trouble or guys in foul trouble early; you never know what can happen in a road game. And that unpredictability is something that is great for building an identity of a team.”

And that is what all of this is about.

Even though Brown and Tatum were the focal points for most following Tuesday’s win over the Knicks, Irving quietly had one of his best games as a Celtic.

He would finish with 20 points on 5-for-13 shooting, but also had seven assists and just three turnovers.

Within the points scored, Irving drained a corner 3-pointer that just beat the shot clock in the third quarter.

Al Horford explained why he passed the ball to Irving with about a second to get a shot off.

“I feel he lives for those moments,” Horford said of Irving.

He does.

His former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, knows this all too well.

It was Irving’s shot in the waning moments of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that catapulted the Cavaliers to an NBA title, a shot that will be remembered as arguably the greatest in that franchise’s history.

Of course, Irving isn’t going to make every buzzer-beater he takes, but the Celtics have a player who does more than make big shots in the fourth quarter.

Irving makes historically great shots in the fourth quarter, a talent you can’t put a price tag on.

He wants to compete at the highest of levels, and understands that in his travels along the road towards greatness, he can’t make the journey on his own.

Which is why the rapid growth of Boston’s youngsters, like Brown and Tatum, is critical to Boston’s success and Irving’s evolution in Boston.

Brown, who turned 21 on Tuesday, led Boston with 23 points against the Knicks while Tatum chipped in with 22. They became the first duo in Celtics history to score 20 or more points in the same game and be 21 years old or younger at the time.  

Their development will open up more and more opportunities for Irving, something Boston desperately needs after losing Gordon Hayward (left ankle) for the season.

His injury has impacted Irving more than any other Celtic, because what Irving needs to be at his best -- spacing -- was the one thing that Hayward’s presence was going to provide him on a nightly basis.

The Celtics are still searching for the best way to fill that void, with Brown and Tatum looking like the best options now.

Both have shown the ability to contribute at a high level and take some of the pressure off Irving.

But there will come a time when the Celtics will need Irving to dominate.

Rest assured, he’ll be ready.

He was built for this mission, this opportunity, this platform to lead the Celtics in a way that will leave an indelible, unmistakable imprint on the most storied franchise in NBA history.

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Lederman: Celtics bench in need of repairs

Lederman: Celtics bench in need of repairs

The NBA trade deadline is a little more than two weeks away and despite the Celtics owning the best record in the Eastern Conference, they may need to think long and hard about making a move. 

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The Celtics bench unit is shooting 39.3 percent from the floor this season. Not only is that last in the NBA, it’s the sixth-lowest field-goal percentage for a bench unit the past 18 seasons. Their 49.1 effective-field-goal percentage is 29th in the NBA. Of the 160 teams that qualified for the playoffs the past 10 years, only two finished the regular season ranked that low in bench eFG%; and both of those teams lost in the first round.

Part of the problem for the Celtics is the inconsistent shooting of Terry Rozier. The third-year guard has shown flashes as a dependable scorer, but has been unable to avoid long shooting slumps so far in his career (he’s currently mired in a 10-for-41 slump over the past five games). Scary Terry is certainly capable of terrorizing (Terryrizing?) opponents; the Celtics are 20-4 when Rozier hits two or more three-point field goals this season. But that’s happened in just 24 of the 47 games he’s played this season.

You can argue that his defense makes up for the offensive struggles. The Celtics bench does have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA. But how much of that is due to Marcus Smart? And how valuable is a second unit that can defend but has a historically bad FG%? The Celtics are going to have to answer those questions before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting the Celtics trade or replace Terry Rozier. They just need to improve their bench’s ability to make baskets, one way or another, if they want to be playing basketball in June. 

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WATCH: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers

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WATCH: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Lakers in Los Angeles. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview:  With Cavaliers in turmoil, Celtics need to take advantage

- Channel Finder: Make sure you know where to watch

[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

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