BOSTON -- Trailing 80-74 about midway through the fourth quarter on Wednesday against Portland, Kyrie Irving found himself being guarded by Blazers wing Jake Layman.
It’s the kind of mismatch Irving has feasted on for years.
True to form, he blew past Layman, gave him a head fake that created even more separation when the two were in the paint, and banked in a shot off the glass.
Irving’s ability to be among the best finishers in the NBA off drives has been both a blessing and a challenge for the six-time All-Star.
Because he shoots such a high percentage off drives to the rim with and without contact being made, this often results in him getting few free-throw opportunities despite being among the league's more consistent drivers.
Irving is smart enough to know delving too deep into a conversation about getting to the line may be seen by some as throwing shade at the NBA’s referees and literally prove costly. And he's made it crystal clear that’s not his intention.
“I like my money,” Irving said.
He also likes scoring at the rim, too.
Despite having spent most of this season shooting around 40 percent from 3-point range (he’s currently a career best-tying 41.5 percent on 3’s) and nearly 50 percent from the field, Irving’s desire more nights than not is to get buckets at the basket.
In the 97-92 loss to Portland, Irving led all Celtics scorers with 31 points off 14-for-24 shooting from the field.
Of those 24 shots, only nine came outside the paint.
And of the 15 attempts inside the paint he made eight, which is pretty consistent with his shooting percentage off of drives.
Among players in the NBA with comparable minutes played and games appeared in this season, Irving ranks sixth in field goal percentage off drives at .552.
“My success rate going to the basket, going up against bigs, is pretty high,” Irving said. “I can finish over anybody with contact. Some nights it’s gonna get called, some nights it’s not. That’s fine.”
Late in the fourth with Boston down 91-81, Irving and Al Horford ran a pick-and-roll resulting in Irving being switched out on defensively by Jusuf Nurkic.
Irving, dribbling with his left hand, tried to explode towards the basket and drew contact from Nurkic as the ball left his left hand and rolled in and out.
But there was no whistle blown, something the Celtics are familiar with when it comes to Irving driving to the basket.
In the loss to the Blazers, Irving did not attempt a single free throw. It was the 10th time this season he didn't attempt a free throw in a game, and third time in Boston’s last four games.
Indeed, there is a clear disconnect between Irving getting to the free-throw line and the frequency in which he drives to the basket.
At 3.5 free-throw attempts per game, Irving ranks 64th in the NBA. His 11.9 drives per game ranks 28th in the league and the 1.2 free-throw attempts per game from drives ranks 20th.
To simply put his lack of free throws at the feet of game officials is a lazy narrative that too many athletes in too many individual and team sports buy into.
As far as the getting to the line more often, that’s something Irving knows he can get better with sooner rather than later.
“I think I can probably make some better decisions going up against some of those bigs and taking the contact,” Irving said, before adding, “and probably shooting pull-ups or a less contested layup.”
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