Celtics

A finish that baseball has never seen before

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A finish that baseball has never seen before

From Comcast SportsNet
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) -- Two innings after Nelson Cruz crumbled to the ground writhing in pain, the slugger provided a grand finish for the Texas Rangers. Cruz hit the first game-ending grand slam in postseason history, sending the defending AL champions to Detroit with a 2-0 lead in the American League championship series after a 7-3 victory over the Tigers in 11 innings Monday. "That's the guy you want to see right now," Elvis Andrus said. "He's getting hot again. That's what we're looking for." The high drive to left off Ryan Perry was the second homer of the game for Cruz, and his third in the ALCS after struggling so badly in the first round of the playoffs (1 for 15 with only a single against Tampa Bay). He now has the Rangers on Cruz control in the ALCS. They are two wins away from their second consecutive World Series after having never won a postseason series before last year. "When Nellie gets going like he's going, he's tough to beat," Ian Kinsler said. "Hopefully he can continue that and carry us." Game 3 is Tuesday night in Detroit. Colby Lewis, 4-0 in five career postseason starts, pitches for Texas against Doug Fister. Lewis was on a flight ahead of the team, and was probably already in Detroit before the 4-hour, 25-minute marathon ended in Texas. Fister flew home with the rest of the Tigers. Cruz doubled early and chased Tigers starter Max Scherzer with a tying home run in the seventh. Then he was hit near the right wrist by a Jose Valverde fastball in the ninth, when the Rangers blew a bases-loaded chance -- same as Detroit had done in the top half of the inning. "When I got hit, I thought it was worse," Cruz said. "In that situation, you want to stay in the game. Thank God I got a chance to win the game." Manager Ron Washington said Cruz "was a little scared" because the area where he got hit was already black and blue. "But after the doctor checked him and told him he was fine, then Nelson got up," Washington said. "We certainly needed everything he gave us tonight. He tied the ballgame, and he won it." Michael Young, the Rangers' career hits leader, snapped an 0-for-15 postseason slide when he led off the 11th with a single off Perry, the fifth Detroit pitcher. Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli followed with singles, the latter on a liner to right-center that looked as though it would be caught. Instead, right fielder Andy Dirks let the ball glance off his glove as center fielder Austin Jackson ran behind him. "It was one of those balls that's a little between us, should have been caught," Dirks said, adding there was no miscommunication between him and Jackson. The ball dropped for a single that loaded the bases. That brought up Cruz, who also homered in Texas' 3-2 win in the series opener. Just before his game-ending blast, Cruz fouled a ball deep into the stands near the pole. He stood briefly and watched when he connected again before a trip around the bases that ended with him getting mobbed at the plate by the Rangers. "It was amazing," said Cruz, who is 4 for 7 with three homers, a double and six RBIs in the ALCS. "First two pitches, I was too aggressive. I hit the ball -- foul ball, foul ball. So after that, I told myself just slow down and try to hit a fly ball to the outfield." STATS LLC said Cruz's slam was the first to end a postseason game -- with a postscript. Robin Ventura sent a bases-loaded drive over the fence to finish a New York Mets victory against Atlanta in the 1999 NLCS, but was swarmed by teammates between first and second. Ventura never made it around the bases and was officially credited with an RBI single. His 15th-inning drive for a 4-3 Mets win in Game 5 came to be known as "the grand slam-single." Instead of the scheduled travel day Monday, the Tigers and Rangers played Game 2, which was postponed Sunday because of a forecast that called for more rain that never came a night after the twice-delayed series opener. Detroit left 13 runners on base, including five in the first two innings, and is now in an 0-2 hole that only three teams have overcome since the league championship series became a best-of-seven in 1985. "It's just been two close games and could have gone either way," said cleanup hitter Victor Martinez, who is 0 for 7 in the series. "Unfortunately, we end up on the losing side, but ... we're going home. We've been doing it the whole season: turn the page, come back tomorrow and keep on going." Mike Adams, the sixth Texas pitcher, got the win with a pair of strikeouts in a scoreless 11th inning. Scherzer bounced off the mound pumping his fist and glove after getting out of a two-on, none-out jam in the sixth with a 3-2 lead. There was a conversation with Leyland after he got to the dugout, and the right-hander went back out for the seventh. That was one batter too long because Cruz led off the inning by pulling a ball down the left-field line that ricocheted high off the pole. "If he got Cruz out, I was going to let him keep going," Leyland said. "I thought he was throwing great. He was throwing tremendous. ... He tried to elevate one in the strike zone, and he didn't get it there."

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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