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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