Celtics

Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart making each other better

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Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart making each other better

BOSTON -- If an NBA reporter who hadn’t been paying close attention to the Boston Celtics this season got dropped into the team’s locker room following Monday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, they might have been flabbergasted by what they heard.

First, Marcus Smart stepped in front of the microphones and got peppered with questions about his 3-point shooting. Soon after, Kyrie Irving entered the scrum and playfully boasted about leading the team in charge takes.

Marcus the shooter? Kyrie the defender? What in the world was going on in Boston?

But it’s probably not a coincidence that these two players, thrust together in Boston’s starting lineup after the team stumbled out of the gates of the 2018-19 season, are so clearly infecting each other. Irving and Smart, often viewed as only possessing game-changing talent on only one end of the floor, have helped each other elevate their play on the opposite side.

Irving, after absorbing his ninth charge take of the season on Monday, is now tied with Smart for the team lead. All-Star point guards with crossover mix tapes aren’t typically the type of players to throw their body in front of oncoming defenders, but Irving sits tied for 10th in the NBA in total charge takes this year, routinely throwing himself in front of the likes of John Wall, James Harden, and Jimmy Butler.

After initially scoffing at the notion that Smart and big man Aron Baynes sat ahead of him in charge takes this season — “I’m past them. I’m past them this season. I lead the team in charges, no question,” Irving playfully boasted — Irving doubled down on his recent revelation that he crunches Smart highlight videos during his downtime. It turns out that Irving marvels at the way Smart puts himself in position to draw contact.

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“It’s well documented that I watch Marcus Smart highlights. Defensively, I literally just sit at home and watch him slide his feet and be able to beat guys to spots and take charges,” said Irving. "To be able to do that at 6-4 with a great build like that, I’m like, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’

"I just try to beat guys to the spot as much as possible and just be in the right spots. [Smart is] always in the right spots, so why wouldn’t you want to watch a guy like that? And Baynes is always in the right spots so give credit to those guys’ instinct and their length and what they use to create defensive havoc.”

Irving has declared on multiple occasions this season that he desires to be a better defender. His uptick in effort is obvious to anyone watching, even beyond the charge takes. Irving’s name mingles with Smart in many of the hustle categories now tracked by the NBA, including being the team leader in loose balls recovered. Irving also sits second on the team behind Smart in deflections.

Smart’s relentless defensive intensity forces teammates to match his effort level. Irving may never be more than an average 1-on-1 defender, but he’s finding ways to utilize his speed and basketball IQ to help the Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens is also putting him in position to sneak away from shooters at times and create his own havoc by disrupting passing lanes.

"Whatever the game needs, I think I try to give,” said Irving. "Whatever impact I can make, offensively and defensively, I’m willing to do. So, anything to get us an extra possession or creating a great possession for my teammates, I’m willing to do. It’s just playing the game the right way. That’s all. Trying to do everything.”

On the other end of the floor, Smart’s sustained spike in 3-point shooting can be traced to Irving as well. Smart has said how the 3-point contests that he, Irving, and the team’s other shooters often engage in after practices have helped him improve his 3-point consistency this season. Maybe not surprisingly, Smart has also made noticeable strides as a facilitator, thriving in pick-and-roll situations and routinely creating good looks regardless of who’s on the floor. 

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Smart smiled when asked about asserting himself as a player capable of making a two-way impact.

"I remember watching some program and someone said I didn’t have the talent,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. "I didn’t have the talent — kinda funny now hearing that. It it what it is. People are right to their opinion. But I know who I am as a player and I know what I can do.”

There’s a case to be made that Smart deserves some consideration when NBA coaches vote soon for All-Star reserves. While the Celtics have promoted Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum as their other top All-Star candidates behind Irving, Smart’s impact is hard to ignore.

The Celtics are 14-5 with Smart in the starting lineup this season and his energy has helped Boston find a bit more consistency after the seesaw start to the year. Irving was one of the first to gush about how Smart’s presence changed things for Boston’s starting group, both upping the energy but also freeing Irving up a bit on the offensive end.

Boston owns a net rating of plus-10.5 in the 609 minutes that Smart and Irving have shared the floor this season with solid efficiencies on both sides of the ball (114.3 offense, 103.8 defense). In the 355 minutes that neither player has been on the court, Boston owns a meager net rating of plus-0.4, and neither player performs quite as well without the other.

Irving and Smart seem to be bringing out the best in each other — and their teammates. Maybe more importantly, as two of the primary leaders of a still-young team, they are setting a quality example that players can still grow and develop their games.

And sometimes all that requires is effort and energy, something that seems to be infectious with this group.

“I think we feed off everybody’s energy,” said Smart, downplaying a suggestion that his intensity forces Irving and the others to elevate their play. "Everybody’s out there giving everything they got. As a competitor, you see that, you feel it. You don’t want to be the one left in the dust so you try to go out there and match that, or do better than that guy. We got everybody out there trying to complete, trying to show who can play the hardest. 

“When we play like that, and bring the best out of each other, it’s a tough team for any one to come in and beat us.”

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How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

How Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Romeo Langford and Tremont Waters fared for Red Claws on Friday

The Maine Red Claws had plenty of star power for Friday night's game vs. the Iowa Wolves. 

Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Romeo Langford each suited up for Maine in its 127-121 victory. It marked Edwards' first game with the Red Claws, as well as both Tacko Fall and Romeo Langford's first game back from injury.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

Here's how the four Celtics rookies performed:

TACKO FALL

Tacko made his mark in his 14 minutes played on Friday night. The 7-foot-5 phenom contributed 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting while bringing down 5 rebounds.

CARSEN EDWARDS

Edwards was solid in his first game in a Red Claws uniform as he racked up 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (2-for-9 from 3-pt).

ROMEO LANGFORD

Langford was slow out the gate, but picked it up in the second half to finish with 8 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds. The Celtics' No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft will look to simply stay healthy going forward, as he's dealt with a nagging ankle injury all season.

TREMONT WATERS

Waters, the G League Player of the Month for November, was relatively quiet in this one. The LSU product dropped 8 points while adding 3 assists in 27 minutes.

Also with standout performances were Yante Maten (26 points, 16 rebounds), Kaiser Gates (17 points, 7 rebounds), Bryce Brown (15 points, 4 assists) and Justin Bibbs (12 points, 6 rebounds).

Next, the Red Claws will take on the Grand Rapids Drive on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

Celtics Talk Podcast: What is your level of confidence with this Celtics team?

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Celtics Talk Podcast: What is your level of confidence with this Celtics team?

Ahead of a strange five-day break in mid-December, the Boston Celtics are sitting at 17-7. But it's hard to figure out exactly how confident to be in this team.

On the one hand, the squad has certainly surpassed expectations to kick off the season. They have been dominant at the TD Garden and did have a 10-game home winning streak to start the campaign.

However, the C's just dropped two close games in a row to other Eastern Conference powers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Indiana Pacers. Do those losses mean that the confidence in the Celtics that many were feeling to start the season should wane?

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

On the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, Chris Forsberg, A. Sherrod Blakely, and Abby Chin all weighed in on how confident they currently are in the Celtics. And despite the team's mini losing streak, they all are still fairly confident in the squad.

Chin gave the team a 7-of-10 confidence rating. She cited the performance of the Celtics' bigs against the 76ers and the "flashes" the team has shown this season as the primary reasons for that.

I feel like the Celtics bigs, Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, did a serviceable job against Joel Embiid and held their own on the offensive end, and that gave me a lot of confidence in this team. I think that there's no way you're going to get that kind of game from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum on the same night maybe ever again in their careers in what they put up against the Sixers. And I still think we see flashes of what this team can be here and there which is why I'm excited about them.

Blakely was a bit more non-committal on a rating, and instead gave a range of somewhere between 7 to 8 with 8.5 being their ceiling.

I see two different teams. I see a team when they're complete and I see a team when they're incomplete. When they're incomplete, I'm with you, they're a 7. They were incomplete against Philly. When you have a healthy Marcus Smart and a relatively healthy, good-to-go health-wise team, they're an 8.

Blakely also called the Celtics "a good team" and said that if every team in the Eastern Conference was fully healthy, his top two teams would be the Milwaukee Bucks and the Celtics.

Hear Forsberg's confidence in the Celtics along with more analysis from Blakley and Chin on the latest episode of "The Celtics Talk Podcast," which drops every week on YouTube and as a part of the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.

BLAKELY: Could Marcus Morris be on the move from the Knicks?>>>

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Mavericks, which tips off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call at 9:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.