Celtics need more than just Playoff Kyrie Irving this postseason

Celtics need more than just Playoff Kyrie Irving this postseason

Robert Williams’ emphatic volleyball block had Kyrie Irving springing to his feet on the Boston sideline and, when Guerschon Yabusele redirected another Indiana shot attempt into the stands soon after, Irving joyfully clutched teammate Terry Rozier in celebration as Boston’s rotation players savored the tail end of a breezy early January win over the visiting Pacers.

The victory that night gave Boston 15 wins in 20 tries, the team playing some of its most inspired ball of the season after stumbling out of the gates to start the 2018-19 season. Irving logged just 24 minutes against Indiana and took only nine shots. His 12 points were the lowest output among six Boston players that landed in double digits for scoring, and he was more than content with this.

“When I don’t have to go out there and score 30, it’s cool with me,” Irving said. "I probably won’t have to score 30 until we play one of the best teams in the league -- or until the playoffs. So I’m happy about that.”

It seemed like a fair assessment at the time, particularly given all the hype about Boston’s depth this season. But Irving has scored 30 or more points 11 times since that declaration -- nearly half the 24 games he’s appeared in during that span -- including each of Boston’s last four games.

While it’s a glimpse of the much-fabled “Playoff Kyrie," the Celtics are a mere 6-5 in those games. Boston squandered two big Irving performances in recent losses to Denver and Philadelphia -- two playoff-caliber opponents -- and needed to grind out wins over Atlanta and Sacramento before that, despite Irving averaging a triple-double in those matchups.


Here’s why it's notable: In a season in which these inconsistent Celtics have had little to cling to in terms of reasons to be confident about their playoff potential, the notion of “Playoff Kyrie,” and his ability to elevate his postseason play was one of the few remaining pillars. When asked last month why he believed the Celtics would be fine in the playoffs, Irving himself responded, “Because I’m here.”

There is little doubt Irving will rise to the occasion on the playoff stage as he’s done throughout his career. After missing last year’s playoff run due to injury, he'll be even more motivated to remind the NBA world what he’s capable of in the postseason.

But Boston’s recent struggles despite Irving’s big nights is a reminder that, particularly against top-level competition, one player can’t do it alone.

In the 17 games where Irving has scored 30 points or more this season, the Celtics are 11-6 overall. But only three of those wins came against top-of-the-conference playoff competition (Toronto, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City).

The Celtics can feel confident about what they will get in the postseason from players like Irving and Al Horford, who likewise has a history of shifting to another gear. Marcus Smart’s offense will likely be all over the map but his defensive intensity won’t wane.


Boston has a bunch of wild cards from there. Can Gordon Hayward rebuild some momentum when he’s back on the court following the concussion protocol and be a consistent presence in the postseason? Can Marcus Morris play more like the 50/40/90 flirter we saw in the first half of the season? Can Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier rekindle their playoff magic from a season ago in the diminished roles that have hindered them at times this year?

Irving’s offensive wizardry is going to give Boston a chance most nights in the postseason. Heck, there might just be games where he singlehandedly wills this team to victories. But the Celtics simply cannot expect it every night, particularly in a beefed-up East.

What’s more, the numbers tend to suggest that Boston’s best basketball comes when Irving doesn’t have to be otherworldly. 

Which is why it’s slightly concerning that, even as Irving puts up big numbers,  his on-court net rating since the All-Star break is a meager plus-0.3 in a team-high 458 minutes of floor time over 13 games. Irving’s individual stat line that span is fantastic at 25.2 points, 7.5 assists, 6.1 rebounds over 35.2 minutes per game. Boston is 5-8 in that span.

To be certain, the Celts' bigger issue at the moment is resolidifying  a defense that has eroded over the past two months. Boston remains fifth in the NBA in defensive rating but coach Brad Stevens has scoffed at the suggestion. After all, the Celtics rank 18th in the NBA in defensive rating since Feb. 1. Irving’s offensive heroics won’t matter if the team can’t limit an opponent's output at the other end of the floor.

Irving has said he plans to take some games off down the stretch and that’s been met with some grumbles from Celtics fans, who wonder if they need as much time together to figure out all that ails them. But if the team is able to move into a position where the No. 4 seed is secured, it might not be the worst thing to rest Irving. It would allow him to be as fresh as possible for the playoff grind, while also giving his teammates a chance to build confidence in bigger roles before the postseason arrives.

It all goes hand in hand. The Celtics need Irving to be great but they can’t expect him to save them on his own. Danny Ainge has consistently referenced how Boston is at its best when six or seven of its key rotation guys are playing well, a time when Irving doesn’t have to be Superman. That hasn’t happened consistently enough this season and that’s why Boston is limping to the finish line of the regular season.

Playoff Kyrie should be fun to watch. He’s going to have big nights. But this recent stretch is a firm reminder that the Celtics need to be able to lean on their depth. 

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Terry Rozier's prediction for Celtics-Bucks series: Plenty of trash talk

Terry Rozier's prediction for Celtics-Bucks series: Plenty of trash talk

Barring the greatest upset in NBA history, the Boston Celtics will get the chance to catch up with some old friends in the second round.

The Milwaukee Bucks, up 3-0 on the Detroit Pistons in their first-round series, need one more win to set up a date with the Celtics, who ousted them last season in a hotly-contested first-round series.

And if you ask Terry Rozier, this year's rematch will be just as hotly-contested.

"We're just gonna make it tough (for them)," Rozier said Monday morning during an appearance on ESPN's "Get Up." "We'll try to be the harder-playing team, and we're looking forward to that matchup.

"We're looking to bring some excitement to this game -- and some trash talking. A little fun."

Rozier, if you'll recall, was in the thick of last year's trash talk thanks to his beef with Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe. Rozier happily fanned the flames of his back-and-forth with Bledsoe, showing up to games in an old Drew Bledsoe Patriots jersey to troll the Bucks point guard.

Rozier likely won't play as big a role on the court this series; he averaged 17.6 points per game in last year's series while filling in for starting point guard Kyrie Irving but has taken a backseat to Irving in the 2019 playoffs. But if Rozier has to play the role of instigator again, he'll happily oblige.

"As you all know, it's part of the game. So, it's going to happen," Rozier said of the jawing that goes on during playoff games. "I feel like if you love basketball, you love the competitive spirit of it, you're going to talk a little trash, you're going to have a little fun.

"... Nobody wants to lose. We definitely don't want to lose. So, whatever it takes next round."

The Celtics still have to wait for Milwaukee to dispatch Detroit -- Game 4 is Monday night -- so until then, please enjoy the best of the Rozier-Bledsoe beef:


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Kyrie Irving boasts some mind-boggling playoff win percentage stats

Kyrie Irving boasts some mind-boggling playoff win percentage stats

There are three constants in life: Death, taxes and Kyrie Irving winning first-round playoff games.

The Boston Celtics completing their sweep of the Indiana Pacers on Sunday means Irving still hasn't lost a first-round playoff game in his NBA career, moving to a perfect 16-0 over four series sweeps between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Celtics.

If you think that's unprecedented ... it is.

The Milwaukee Bucks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round last year, but Irving was sidelined with a knee injury. Before that? The All-Star guard helped power the Cavs to first-round sweeps in 2017, 2016 and 2015 (over the Celtics).

Irving's remarkable playoff success isn't limited to the first round, however. Get this: With a 50-game minimum qualifier, Irving has the highest playoff percentage of any player in NBA history (now .768 after Sunday's win.)

If you're looking for some fun (and totally apples-to-oranges) context, Irving's winning percentage is also higher than that of the best quarterback in NFL history.

Of course, Irving benefited from having LeBron James on his team during three consecutive NBA Finals runs from 2015 to 2017. But the Robin to James' Batman still was pivotal to Cleveland's playoff success. After Irving injured his knee in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, the Cavs lost three of their next five games to fall to the Golden State Warriors. The following year, however, a healthy Irving buried the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 to lift Cleveland to an NBA title.

So, when Kyrie kept saying he couldn't wait until the playoffs and raved about the Celtics' potential once the "real games" started, it turns out he had some proof to back up his boasts.

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