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. 

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.


Celtics Talk podcast: Celtics are up 2-0 heading to Indiana, but are they really at their best?

Celtics Talk podcast: Celtics are up 2-0 heading to Indiana, but are they really at their best?

0:33 - Chris Forsberg and Kyle Draper break down the first two games of the Celtics first-round series with the Pacers and debate if the Celtics can go deeper into the playoffs at their current level of play.

4:33 - The guys talk about Al Horford coming up big defensively despite coming down with the flu the night before Game 2.

6:55 - A huge reason why the Celtics are up 2-0 in the season is because Indiana disappeared in the 3rd quarter in Game 1 and the 4th quarter in Game 2. Chris and Kyle look at exactly what went wrong for the Pacers in those quarters.

10:13 - A. Sherrod Blakely is joined by J. Michael from the Indy Star to discuss the series so far and J. zeros in on the Pacers biggest problem in the first two games: defense.

24:22 - Chris and Kyle finish up by talking about what has surprised them the most in other playoff series around the league.


Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

Welcome to Jaylen Brown's redemption tour

Welcome to Jaylen Brown's redemption tour

BOSTON — If you so desired, you could compile a highlight reel of Boston Celtics players and coaches screaming at Jaylen Brown this season. It felt like nary a game passed without someone (loudly) informing Brown about a missed rotation or defensive miscue. Marcus Morris got so mad about one instance of less-than-desired intensity that he shoved Brown during a timeout in Miami and the video served as an encapsulation of Boston’s frustration-filled 2018-19 season.

Nobody is spared from tongue-lashings in the NBA — heck, cameras caught Brad Stevens giving Kyrie Irving some grief for a lack of defensive focus heading to a timeout during Wednesday’s Game 2 — but it was fair to wonder why Brown so frequently had teammates pointing out his errors.

The answer, teammates and coaches often noted throughout the season, was that everyone simply holds Brown to a higher standard because they know how impactful he can be on the defensive end.

The Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour had been rolling along for a few months now but it’s really been thrust into the spotlight in the playoffs. Brown, who was unfairly maligned for much of Boston’s early-season woes and the way the original starting unit fizzled, has been one of the team’s more consistent presences since the start of the new calendar year. 

But having elevated to a starting role against the Pacers, Brown has upped his defensive intensity and has his coach gushing about his offensive decision-making, all of which has helped Boston to a 2-0 series lead.

"I just think Jaylen has shown tremendous growth,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on a conference call before the team flew to Indiana on Thursday. "And here’s a guy that, early in the season, got a lot of flak for a small sample size where he struggled. Then he had a really really good year after that.  He just kept working, kept getting better. He’s worked hard on improving things that he needed to improve.”

Brown previously drew effusive praise from Stevens for the percipient kickout pass in the final minute of Game 2 that led to Jayson Tatum’s go-ahead 3-pointer. Brown, who had missed a driving layup that could have tied the game with 1:50 to play, was racing in transition after Al Horford’s game-saving swat of Bojan Bogdanovic when he encountered traffic near the rim. 

Instead of trying to muscle home a difficult layup, Brown got the defense to commit then sent a bullet to the corner where an open Tatum canned the decisive triple.

“He had [the ball] in transition, he had to beat a point guard, he had to beat him with his left hand, his off hand, he had to raise up, get his eyes to the rim, he draws [attention], and he whips a pass across the court and puts it on a dime to his shooter in the corner,” Stevens gushed again on Thursday. "That’s a great pass for a lot of guys -- for everybody, that’s a great play by anybody. 

"And I thought that pass was very indicative of [Brown’s progress]. Not only the physical delivery but also the wherewithal in that moment. [Myles] Turner had been really effective at the rim and for Jaylen to make that play was great. Then, next play down, Jayson gets the drive and Jayson’s got a chance to pull up, and he dumps it off [to Gordon Hayward for a layup]. I just thought those were really really good plays by those two guys late in the game.”

For his part, Brown shrugged off the decision to pass. He said it was the easy choice when block-maestro Turner came over with help. But Brown knew how smitten his coach was with the decision.

“[Stevens] was just smiling and said that was a helluva play, a big-time play,” said Brown. " I said to him, ‘You probably thought I was going to lay it up, didn’t you?’ He laughed, he said, ‘Nah, I knew you were going to make the right play.”

When the Celtics lost Smart to a torn oblique in the final week of the regular season, Brown was the obvious choice to elevate to his starting role. Still, Stevens left the door open to examine other options. Brown has made a strong case to stay in that spot, playing inspired defense against Bogdanovic in Game 1 and making key plays in Game 2.

Brown’s defensive numbers weren’t as glitzy in Game 2, a product of both teams’ offense finding a better rhythm than the Game 1 rock fight, but the NBA’s tracking data suggests Brown’s covers scored just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting overall. Slightly concerning is how the Pacers scored 27 points as a team in the 16 possessions that Brown defended Bogdanovic (with the wing scoring 5 points on 2-of-4 shooting, individually). But Brown’s struggles weren’t for a lack of effort.

And Brown recognizes that, particularly in trying to help fill Smart’s void, his play will be judged largely on his defensive intensity.

"That’s where series change, games change,” said Brown. "I’ve got to hang my hat on defense, whether it’s boxing out, guarding 4s, 2s, some of the ugly possessions. We have guys who can score the ball. We need guys who can grit their teeth and make plays and make things happen in the fourth quarter. 

"Guys like Gordon Hayward, Kyrie, Jayson Tatum – we have a lot of offensive firepower. But we have to make sure we’re sound and solid, diving for loose balls and getting rebounds, boxing out and [being] physical.”

At the start of the season, Brown lingered near the back end of ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus stats. In mid-November, Brown ranked 417th out of the 430 players that had appeared in games to that point. By season’s end, Brown was middle of the pack, elevating to 234th out of 514 total players. He even finished in the positive for defensive plus/minus and his RPM wins — an estimate of the number of wins each player contributed to his team’s total — was plus-2.52, or identical to Marcus Morris, who drew All-Star buzz after a strong first half. 

Brown has been an incredible luxury for the Celtics the past two seasons. Last year, with Irving and Hayward sidelined by injury, Brown led the Celtics in scoring while the team surged to Game 7 of the East finals. This year, with Smart out, it’s Brown trying to give the team a defensive jolt. 

His teammates probably won’t stop screaming at him any time soon. But only because they know how impactful he can be. And they know they need him to reach their loftiest goals this postseason.

And the Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour has potential to help spur the redemption tour the whole team is embarking upon after an underwhelming regular season.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.