BOSTON — Stop me if you’ve heard this holiday tale: Guy in green, a documented Christmas skeptic, is overcome by the spirit of the season. His heart grows in size and he finds impossible strength that helps avert disaster and deliver a happy holiday ending to all the townspeople.
The Grinch? No, this is the story of Kyrie Irving.
One year after suggesting he doesn’t get into the hoopla of Christmas, Irving reveled in the Christmas spirit this week, overcome with excitement by the presence of his family and friends and cranking his game to another level against the Hornets and Sixers.
By the time Irving reached the locker room at halftime of the Christmas Day showdown against Philadelphia, he had found the strength of 10 Kyries. Eventually, a pair of extra-session triples helped Boston separate for a 121-114 overtime triumph and Irving triumphantly flexed for the crowd following the first 40-point, 10-rebound performance of his career.
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"I told [teammates], ‘My family is here is to watch me play. I got 20-plus people from my family here and so I’m acting up. Like, you guys have no idea, I’m so excited,’” Irving detailed after Tuesday’s triumph. "I don’t really get the chance to have family all in one place, and most my family came tonight, so it means a lot to me. To have them here on Christmas, I was like a kid.
"Everybody's here — my aunts, my uncle, my friends. It just meant a lot to me. They were here against Charlotte as well and I came out just cooking. I’m like, man, it don’t even matter what the Hornets do or the Sixers do, it’s just like I’m here to play for my family and my teammates. It’s Christmas spirit, man, and I missed it.”
Irving, of course, would downplay the magnitude of his performance in the bigger picture, suggesting he doesn’t really “give a s---“ about regular-season games and saying his focus is largely on getting back to the playoff stage.
But, even at 26, Irving quite clearly continues to grow and evolve. The game Tuesday was only the fourth time in his career that he’s reached double digits in rebounds and his effort, both with the breakneck pace he played and the hustle to keep possessions alive, did not go unnoticed.
Irving was spectacular, offensively. He missed his first three shots only to erupt for 16 first-quarter points (this after putting up 17 in the first quarter against Charlotte). During one span, Irving made 9 of 10 shots, helping him get to 23 points at halftime.
But his heroics came in crunch time. Like when he drove on Jimmy Butler in the final minute of regulation and, unable to shake him with a series of moves, somehow bounced in a highly contested fadeaway off the front rim to send the game to overtime.
In the extra session, the game could have easily slipped away from Boston when Marcus Smart drew a technical for shoving Ben Simmons and the Sixers opened a five-point lead with 3:33 to go. Unfazed, the Celtics closed the extra session on a 13-1 burst, highlighted by Irving’s back-to-back 3-pointers, a mere 32 seconds apart, that all but ensured a win.
The second triple, which came with Boston clinging to a one-point lead with 89 seconds to play, was a pull-up in transition with Butler rushing to contest. Irving, often serene on the court, seemed to really feed off the energy of the moment as he exulted to the crowd, his 40-point performance complete.
"I always talk about being on those big stages -- it’s just so much fun,” said Irving. "It’s competition at its highest. I love going against the best. It’s not too often you get to do that in the regular season, especially on a holiday like Christmas. I got to open presents with my family this morning, then coming into work, it’s great.”
Of course, none of the Celts in Celtsville were particularly surprised by what Irving did on Tuesday night.
"I'm about used to it now,” said Marcus Morris. "When he first came, it was crazy. But some of the s--- don't even surprise me no more with how often he does it, you know what I'm saying?”
Echoed Al Horford: "That was great, it was a lot of fun. I remember [former teammate] Kyle Korver, when we played Kyrie at first, one of the things he told me was he makes shots in big moments. He’s the guy that we would go to here, and it’s just great because Ky, taking those big shots, making the right play, just having the ball in his hands — it was a lot of fun. The crowd went crazy for the second one. So just emotions running high.”
Irving has been spectacular all season long but he’s had some real gems in December. He took the fourth quarter off after scoring 25 points on 9-for-12 shooting in 29 minutes against the Hornets. He had 38 points in another overtime thriller in Washington earlier in the month. Even when the Celtics endured the three-game losing streak that precipitated the now-famed closed-door meeting following a loss to the Bucks last week, Irving was still solid in all those losses.
The Celtics gave him some room to drift on defense and create a bit of havoc with his free safety ways. But it was Irving’s aggressiveness on the glass that set a tone early as he snagged a few offensive rebounds early and harnessed the intensity from there.
No one on the Celtics’ roster has enjoyed the ups and downs of the 2018-19 season as much as Irving, who revels in what the tough times have helped teach this team. He knows how far they’ve come this season already.
"Just seeing the evolution of where this team is now, and then where we can be,” said Irving. "And then also appreciating where we’ve come from because,” he stopped to chuckle, “it’s been bad sometimes.”
Yes, the Celtics have had times where they’ve stink, stank, stunk. But Tuesday marked a victory over a chief Eastern Conference rival, another indication that the Celtics will be ready for the big playoff stage.
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When Irving plays like he did Tuesday, Boston can compete with anyone. And on nights where he’s cooking, opposing teams can only grumble, "You’re a mean one, Mr. Irving.”
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