When Kyrie Irving danced his way through traffic for a go-ahead layup in the final seconds of the victory over the Indiana Pacers last week, it wasn’t just how easy he made the drive look that was notable.
It’s that it was his first true game-winner in a Celtics uniform.
Despite his reputation as one of the most clutch players in the NBA, it took Irving 123 games in green before producing a last-second winner. In fact, Irving had missed all eight of the previous shots he attempted in the final 10 seconds of a one-possession game since joining Boston in the summer of 2017.
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For a player who hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA history in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the lack of a winner was a bit of anomaly. Irving routinely posts some of the NBA’s best clutch-time numbers (games within five points in the final five minutes) and he had no shortage of big fourth quarters the past two seasons.
He simply didn’t have that signature moment in a Boston uniform.
Not that he didn’t have opportunities, like in his very first game as a Celtic, when Irving missed a potential overtime-forcing 3-pointer at the buzzer against his former team in Cleveland. Other times, like a very well-publicized final sequence in Orlando earlier this season, the ball simply didn’t find its way to Irving’s hands on the final play.
What’s more, Irving has deferred to his teammates in other situations, earning the assist when his pass out of a double team allowed Marcus Morris to cap a big rally in Phoenix with an overtime-forcing 3-pointer earlier this season.
The layup against Indiana was the seventh game-winner of Irving’s career in the final five seconds, according to stats maven Dick Lipe, and his first since Christmas Day 2016 against the Warriors (another game that hammers home his penchant for stepping up on big stages).
Here’s why Irving’s heroics against Indiana are even more notable in the aftermath: With Boston clinging to a three-point lead with under 90 seconds to play on Monday night against the Heat, Irving raced up the floor in transition, drew a (questionable) blocking foul on Kelly Olynyk, and muscled home an and-one layup that essentially ensured another Boston win.
Irving’s crunch-time heroics in his past two outings are one of the primary positives that the Celtics can cling to, even if the team's overall play has left little to be encouraged about as the playoffs near.
While the Celtics need much of their roster to step up to have a chance at playoff success, having Irving, who yearns for the ball in those big-time moments, could be key to grinding out postseason wins.
“He’s one of the best scorers in the league and, when he puts on those jets in transition, it’s hard to keep him from getting where he wants to go,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Irving’s late-game drives after the win over Miami. “I’m not sure everybody’s got his jets, so I don’t think it’s something everybody should try at home.”
After a brief pause, Stevens added, “Or, a lot of guys in the NBA shouldn’t try it, either.”
Despite his lack of last-second winners in Boston, Irving is having one of his best clutch seasons of his career. Irving ranks third in total clutch-time points in the NBA this season, having scored 150 in a mere 124 clutch minutes. That ranks third in the league in total output, trailing only James Harden (187 points in 138 minutes) and Kemba Walker (159 points in 147 minutes).
Kyrie Irving clutch stats (+5 points, last 5 min) per game, past four years:
Year PTS FG% 3PT% ORTG NET RTG
2018-19 4.3 48.5% 33.3% 126.9 +23.9
2017-18 4.2 47.5% 26.5% 112.0 +2.6
2016-17 3.5 39.8% 22.6% 114.7 +9.0
2015-16 3.6 36.1% 28.6% 105.7 -4.2
Maybe more noteworthy, Boston owns an offensive rating of 126.9 when Irving is on the floor in clutch time this season. The team’s net rating is a plus-23.9 during those situations. Those are absurd numbers.
Irving ranks fifth in the NBA averaging 4.3 clutch points per game this year. One of the players in front of him: Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, who was averaging an NBA-best 5.1 clutch points per game before his season-ending knee injury.
With a Celtics-Pacers series seemingly looming in Round 1, that’s particularly notable when you start considering series advantages. It was Oladipo who hit a big game-winner over Irving earlier in the season and his absence looms large, particularly given the likelihood that playoff games will be close and both teams are going to need players willing to step up in those situations.
For all their nauseating play this season, the Celtics have found a few positives to cling to in recent games. Stevens has had success with two-big lineups featuring Al Horford and Aron Baynes, that duo restoring a bit of Boston’s defensive intensity lately. Gordon Hayward seems to be playing with more consistency lately and the Celtics have played some of their best basketball this season when Hayward is a chief contributor.
But Clutch Kyrie could be a real difference-maker if this team is to emerge as a legitimate threat on the playoff stage. And the Celtics should feel real comfortable with the ball in his hands late in games.
It took a while to get his first winner in green, but it might not be nearly as long for his next.
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