WASHINGTON, D.C. — Marcus Smart swears he knew the shot was going up.
Maybe that’s why he never even made it out far enough to set the high screen on John Wall that was supposed to set the play in motion. No, by the time Smart even got close, teammate Kyrie Irving was already going up with a shot that seemed even deeper than the still absurd 31 feet that the official box score would peg it at.
Irving's right elbow pointed at the rim and Wall planted at least eight feet away inside the 3-point arc, Irving capped a spellbinding late-game performance by splashing the deep triple that snapped the game’s final tie and lifted the Boston Celtics to a 130-125 overtime triumph over the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.
There were still 18 seconds remaining in the extra session and 11 ticks on the shot clock when Irving elected to take the deep 3. His heels were closer to the center-court logo than the 3-point arc. But there was zero hesitation.
"Just trying to win the game, honestly,” said Irving, who scored a game-high 38 points on 12-of-28 shooting with seven assists, three rebounds, and a steal over 40 minutes.
"Just trying to get enough separation. Three-pointers are pretty much a dagger [in that moment], so I just try to get my feet set, get my elbow pointed to the rim. It was a little deep out, but a very makable shot.”
Throughout the final quarter and overtime, Irving was the real wizard. The Celtics probably should have won in regulation if not for a head-shaking sequence in which Bradley Beal put back a free-throw miss after Boston had fouled while up three in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter.
But Irving wouldn’t let the win slip away. With the Wizards up one and less than a minute to play in the extra session, Irving rushed to collect the ball in front of the Boston bench during a late-clock situation. And even with Wall smothering him, Irving somehow wiggled his way into enough space to splash a 3-pointer while fading back towards Boston’s assistant coaches.
The shot made an audible whooshing sound as it splashed through the net and, even in a buzzing building filled with green-clad Celtics fans, you could hear it from the stands.
“Those last two shots were amazing,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "The one in front of our bench was a joke. How tough that was and he made it look easy.”
When Irving stepped to the line for the pair of freebies that iced the game, the fans in DC serenaded him with a loud MVP chant. The scene left Washington reporters asking Boston players about the oddity of hearing cheers, including a couple loud, “Let’s Go Celtics” chants, in an opposing building.
"This must be your first time,” Marcus Morris said to one inquiry. "It’s like that in every arena. It's not the first time.”
Irving’s play has a way of making even opposing fans marvel. While he was far from a one-man show on Wednesday — the Celtics don’t claw back from an 11-point deficit without Smart’s relentless hustle, and Morris followed up a big night against the Pelicans by putting up 27 points and nine rebounds against his brother’s team, highlighted by a pair of big tip-ins at the end of regulation — the Celtics put the ball in his hands every time they needed a bucket in a crucial spot.
Irving scored 16 of his points over the final 7:08 of game play, including 12 of Boston’s 17 points overall in the extra session.
“It’s fun, man. It’s fun basketball,” said Irving. "Understanding that you have some great players on the floor that are capable of making some great plays, so you never know what’s going to happen down the stretch. And [Beal] missed a free throw and gets a layup -- you never know the flow of the game what can happen so you just try to stay prepared. And I feel like I got a good look going into OT to end the game, but it just didn’t go my way. So we just had to battle five more minutes and will it out.”
Earlier in the day, during the team’s morning shootaround on the campus of Georgetown University, Irving had peeled back the curtain and detailed his desire to evolve as a leader. He admitted Boston’s early season struggles left him searching for ways to get the team on track and it’s probably no coincidence that Boston has ripped off seven wins since — though much of the team’s success can be traced to team-wide efforts, particularly given all the injuries the Celtics have endured recently.
Irving suggested that going through those early struggles has only made these sort of wins more enjoyable.
"You have goals that you set, you want to attain them. But I think going through it and figuring it out is the most enjoyable part,” said Irving. "You’ve gotta enjoy the pain and suffering as much as you enjoy the happiness, and going up and having highs on the season. So just enjoying it and making sure my teammates are enjoying it. Make sure we’re smiling, having a great time. Just having a great time competing and doing what we love -- I think that’s the best part about this.”
Now he wants his team to keep having fun, but not lose sight of how hard it had to work to start stringing these wins together.
"Just staying consistent is the biggest thing for us. Just make sure we’re having fun,” said Irving. "I always say to these guys when we’re in the locker room, or on the plane or coming into work, just enjoy the workplace and build relationships with the guys that you’re going to be with for 82 games plus. So you want to have a great group, it takes work to build it.”
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