Celtics

Since joining Celtics, Irving has grown into complete player

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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Hayward gives his walking boot the boot as recovery progresses

Hayward gives his walking boot the boot as recovery progresses

Look who's out of his walking boot?

Gordon Hayward visited the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston on Wednesday and looked to be moving around pretty well without the walking boot he's had on following surgery for the gruesome injury he suffered five minutes into his Celtics debut.

The Celtics have been saying the timetable for Hayward's return hasn't changed. They haven't been expecting him to return this season but he sure seems to be progressing in his recovery. 


 

Celtics may get big surprise tonight when they host Nuggets

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Celtics may get big surprise tonight when they host Nuggets

BOSTON -- If the Celtics' preparation for tonight's game against Denver focused on the Nuggets' last handful of games, they might be in for a big surprise tonight.
 
Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets' 6-foot-10 big man, suffered a left ankle injury on Nov. 30 against Chicago, and has not played in the six games since then. But coach Mike Malone has indicated that there's a chance that he may be on the floor tonight.

In addition to averaging 15.5 points per game, the third-year big man leads the team in rebounds (10.6) and assists (4.6) per game.
 
"He's getting closer," Malone told reporters in Detroit on Tuesday. "He's moving better. I think he's managing the pain."
 
As far as whether Jokic will play tonight?

"We'll wait and see," Malone said.
 
Here are five under-the-radar storylines heading into tonight's game between Boston and Denver. 
 
DENVER DEFENSE? 
When it comes to scoring, the Nuggets can hold their own with the best of them. But defense? Definitely not their forte. Denver comes into tonight's game giving up 106.8 points per game, which ranks 20th in scoring defense. Boston hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard this season (103.2 points per game, ranking 21st in the NBA), but you gotta believe being at home against a team that has struggled all season defensively will be just what the Celtics need to have a solid night offensively.  
 
SECOND-CHANCE POINTS
The Celtics' improved rebounding has been critical to their ability to not only keep teams off the glass, but also limit opponents second-chance points. Boston allows a league-low 10.1 second-chance points but will be put to the ultimate test against Denver. The Nuggets come into tonight's matchup averaging a league-best 15.6 second-chance points per game. 
 
BENCH SCORING
Second-unit play will be critical tonight, especially considering how, according to hoopsstats.com, the Celtics are eighth in the NBA in fewest points allowed off the bench (32.6) while Denver ranks seventh in bench scoring (39.8).
 
CORNER 3
Boston is going to have to pick up its defense when it comes to the corner 3-ball, which has been a Nuggets' strength all season. According to nba.com/stats, Denver is shooting 45.0 percent on corner 3's this season, which ranks fourth in the NBA. And the Celtics, while having the league's top-ranked defense, have not defended the corner 3 so well. They come into tonight's game allowing opponents to shoot 43.4 percent on corner 3's, which ranks 24th in the league. 

CLUTCH PLAY
If tonight's game involves clutch plays needing to be made down the stretch, you have to give the edge to Boston. The Celtics have had 19 games this season that fall under "clutch" parameters (ahead or behind by five points or less in the last five minutes of play) while the Nuggets have had eight. In those 19 games, Boston has a 14-5 record and its .737 winning percentage is fourth-highest win the NBA. The Nuggets aren't too far behind at .625 (5-3), which is the seventh-highest winning percentage in "clutch" situations.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE