BOSTON — Celtics All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, with one triple-double to his name before Thursday, fell one assist shy of notching his second consecutive triple-double in the 129-120 triumph over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday at TD Garden.
Irving has produced maybe the two best rebounding efforts of his career in consecutive games, grabbing a career-best 11 boards against Atlanta. Four of the six games in which Irving has grabbed double-digit rebounds in his career have happened since Christmas.
So why the sudden uptick in rebounds?
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“I just wasn’t asked to do it a lot in Cleveland. Tristan [Thompson] was like an offensive-rebound maniac and [LeBron James] was trying to get every rebound. I was with some thirsty guys for rebounding,” Irving said to laughter.
"And that’s OK, that’s their job, and I fully support that. So, I wasn’t really down there that much. I’ve always been capable of doing it, but helping our bigs here is a point of emphasis for us.”
While the rebounds are relatively new, the rest of Irving’s stat line has become the norm. He followed up his 31-point triple-double by scoring 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting against the Hawks. Irving added nine assists, a steal, and two blocks (including a late-game swat of John Collins with Boston up six with 20 seconds to play).
“I’m just trying to play the game the right way, play with just unbelievable effort, making sure I’m getting guys involved, but staying aggressive looking for my shot,” said Irving. "As I do that more, it starts to open up for my teammates. I think I was being a little more conservative over the past games before All-Star break, and since then I’ve just tried to be as aggressive as possible.
"When I’m aggressive, the team is aggressive, and it helps us. It’s a lot easier to get assists when you’re looking for your shot first, if that makes sense. Coming off and you’re acting like you’re about to shoot, you can see the defense collapsing off just a simple play. Just reading it really well.”
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It’s hard to argue with the numbers that Irving has posted, particularly since the team’s much-ballyhooed cross-country flight last weekend.
Over the past six games, Irving is averaging 25.6 points while shooting 49 percent from the field to go along with 9.6 assists and 7 rebounds over 34.4 minutes per game (a noticeable uptick for a player who had gently hinted he’d like as much floor time as possible). Irving’s net rating in that span is plus-7.3 and the Celtics are 5-1, their only loss coming to the Clippers at the tail end of the four-game road trip out west.
But the rebounding, in particular, has caught the eye of his teammates.
"I think [Irving’s rebounding is] great,” said big man Al Horford, who sat out an extended stretch of the second half with knee discomfort. "I think when our guards rebound the ball like that, I think that’s when you start becoming a team that’s elite. Him and Terry and those guys coming in there getting those long rebounds, those rebounds over the top, they just make us that much better.
"It’s been really impressive what he’s been able to do these last few games.”
Irving’s all-around effort isn’t lost on coach Brad Stevens.
"I think the way he passes the ball, he’s been active on the glass, offensive and defensive, and he’s obviously always going to go double-figures in scoring. So, I mean, every night, he’s doing a lot for us,” said Stevens. "He’s really, really played well recently. He’s had a great year anyway, but I just think he’s filling it up right now in every category and I think he’s -- at the end of games people are paying so much attention to him he’s just getting rid of it, making the right play.”
Irving and Hawks rookie Trae Young dazzled with their offensive talents, trading baskets early in a game that was often thin on defensive effort. Irving offered high praise for Atlanta’s sharpshooting guard and likes the challenges of a new generation.
"I’m greatly impressed just to see his evolution from what was it October all the way until now. He’s definitely in contention with Luka [Doncic] for Rookie of the Year,” said Irving. “It’s probably one of the closest races in a little while just for how successful those guys have been. He’s just been growing and maturing. And their coach is putting him in a great position to be successful, coming off those double drags, he and John Collins have a great friendship as you can see on the court and off the court.
"It’s just great to see young guys like that develop, coming in and kind of proving everybody wrong. It’s his first year. First, in October everyone was like, ‘He’s too small to play. He’s this, he’s that.’ And now it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s actually [good]. He has the potential to be a special player in this league.’ So I’m excited to go against him for the next however many years we go against each other.
Irving, as he is wont to do, retold the story of how Jose Calderon produced a big game in Irving’s NBA debut (Irving often notes how Calderon “busted his ass” and his stat line seems to grow each time he mentions it).
"That’s what makes it fun, going out there and playing against those guys,” said Irving. "Because, obviously, it’s a challenge for them. They see me in a certain light, I see them — I’ve been watching these guys for a while. But to have that competitive spirit, I love it. It’s just competition all in one — I grew up on that type of stuff. So when someone scores on you, please believe I’m going right back at them.
"So it’s just, as you grow and go from different levels — high school to college to the NBA — now everybody’s on an even playing field and you’ve got to show why you’re here."
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