Celtics

Kyrie Irving candidly details "challenge" of playing with LeBron James

Kyrie Irving candidly details "challenge" of playing with LeBron James

It took time, but Kyrie Irving now seems completely comfortable discussing what once was a third-rail topic.

The Boston Celtics point guard recently spoke to ESPN's Dave McMenamin about the challenges (and benefits) of playing with LeBron James, his teammate of three seasons on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And while Irving sometimes treads lightly when discussing James, he pulled the curtain back for McMenamin's story about how the young Los Angeles Lakers are adapting to life with LeBron.

It's definitely a challenge. You now become part of a championship-caliber team based on a unique talent. LeBron is so smart, so talented, such a strong leader. And you're trying to implement who you are, and grow as a player and learn every single day. And it can be difficult because it demands a lot of you.

Certain times young players -- and even older ones -- find it a big transition, because you're playing a certain way, and growing as a player, and you have a vision of what your career will look like. And then this player of such great stature arrives, and you're still trying to be great, and he's already great. And you find yourself asking, 'OK, what are the steps to get there?' So now do you learn by example from watching him? Do you learn by the way he treats his body? By the way he treats his business off the court? By his philanthropic path? So you just watch and you observe.

Irving was entering his fourth NBA season when James triumphantly returned in 2014. Over the next three seasons, James both brought out the best in Irving -- Kyrie averaged a career high 25.2 points per game in 2016-17 -- and caused him frustration, as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft tried to forge his own identity while playing with an incredibly dominating personality.

Here's more from Irving on James:

You also have to be aware of the expectations from the outside and how that can infiltrate your thinking. Somehow it ends up where everybody wants to play the blame game when things don't go right. So it's just a lot to get used to. It comes with a lot of pressures. I believe the very, very special ones, the unique ones, gladly take on that challenge, and they relish it. You can't be afraid to challenge another great person. That's how greatness is achieved.

It was a lot for me to figure out. The belief I have in myself goes way beyond anything that could deter me from what I want to accomplish. You can never ever, ever, ever, ever lose your sense of self while you are playing alongside a great player.

Irving's desire to chart his own path seemingly led to their split: Kyrie demanded a trade in the 2017 offseason and got his wish when the Celtics acquired him in August. He's flourished ever since, while James' new Lakers teammates now face the same challenge a young Irving did in Cleveland.

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Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford on playing his former Celtics teammates: 'It's going to be weird for me'

Al Horford spent the last three seasons of his career with the Boston Celtics, and as he prepares to face off against them as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he admitted it will be weird to go up against his former team. 

After a season where the typically overachieving Celtics fell disastrously short of expectations, Horford opted out of his contract with Boston to enter the free-agent market. A reported 'mystery team' was offering him far more money than the Celtics were comfortable with given the near-guarantee of Kyrie Irving's departure at the time.

That team turned out to be the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics' biggest rival in the Eastern Conference and a team in which Horford gave fits due to his ability to shut down Joel Embiid on both ends of the floor. The Celtics tried to pull off a miraculous three-team sign-and-trade to secure both Horford and Kemba Walker, but the veteran big man put an end to that by agreeing to a four-year, $97 million contract with Philly the night of June 30. 

The Celtics and Sixers will open their seasons in Philadelphia, so Horford's return to Boston and his reunion with the TD Garden faithful will have to wait. But it'll still feel incredibly weird to see Horford in a Sixers uniform, setting up Embiid for baskets instead of turning him away from them. 

The Celtics, meanwhile, will have to figure out a way to counteract Philly's size in the frontcourt if they have any chance of beating such a talented Sixers team this upcoming Wednesday. 

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Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Celtics assistant Jay Larranaga lauds Marcus Smart's defensive fundamentals

Marcus Smart cemented his status as one of the NBA's best defenders after a First Team All-Defense selection last season, but he's been exceptional on that end of the floor in each of his first five seasons with the Celtics. 

We notice his sharp instincts, tenacity on and off the ball and the grittiness he shows when he guards players much taller than he is. But what probably goes most unnoticed are his fundamentals, and Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga detailed how fundamentally sound Smart is on the defensive end of the floor in Adam Himmelsbach's latest story on the team's heartbeat. 

Marcus is a live example of the most fundamental defense you can teach. Every year you bring in new players and you’re trying to teach them NBA defense, you have an example of a defender that has been the most fundamentally sound defender I’ve ever been around. So you can say, ‘This is how guard a corner split: Watch Marcus. This is how you get into the ball and direct it with active hands: Watch Marcus.’ You always have a guy right there to tell other players, like, just watch what he’s doing and try to emulate it.

Since Smart entered the league, Brad Stevens has had a really hard time taking him out of games. He's been a starter or a key reserve in every season of his career and has been a staple in Boston's closing lineups as well.

Here's a look at how the Celtics have ranked in defensive rating since Smart's rookie year in 2014-15:

2014-15: 12th
2015-16: 4th
2016-17: 14th
2017-18: 2nd
2018-19: 6th

Without Al Horford, who was a part of the last three Celtics defenses and Aron Baynes, who was a part of the last two, Boston will have to overcome a glaring hole in the frontcourt on defense. While Smart has expressed his confidence in playing center in the past, Stevens will have to rely on ball pressure to ensure his team stays strong on defense.

And there's a good chance Smart is leading the charge in that department. 

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