Kyrie Irving demands more from young Celtics

Kyrie Irving demands more from young Celtics

ORLANDO — The Boston Celtics’ locker room had all but cleared out by the time Kyrie Irving stood up, removed the earbuds that he had been popped in while decompressing in his locker chair, and made his way to the showers.

Irving had been visibly upset with the way Boston’s final play unfolded, likely preferring the ball would have found its way to his hands with a chance to win the game. The Celtics instead settled for a tough 21-foot fadeaway by Jayson Tatum that clanged off the iron in a 105-103 loss at the Amway Center.

Dressed in a gray Nike sweatsuit and with a black hat pulled low, Irving eventually plopped down on a folding table in front of reporters. He dismissed the first five questions he faced in less than 50 words, an oddity for a player that’s typically loquacious in his responses.

Asked about Boston’s inconsistencies, Irving launched into a response that went on for over two minutes, citing Boston’s lack of experience as a major factor in the team’s seesaw play. Irving suggested that younger players are not playing hard enough for a full 48 minutes and said they’ve got to appreciate more the opportunity that’s in front of them.

While Irving ultimately pinned much of the blame on himself for not being able to get the most out of the roster, he also noted how those younger players, seeing a potentially long window of being a title contender, might not be as eager to embrace the work that’s needed for Boston to be great.

And Irving is eager to be great right now. His response to the query on explaining Boston’s ups and downs, in full: 

"Experience. It’s the best thing I can say is experience. We’re lacking it and, because of that, we have a lot of learning to do. So we have a lot of ground to make up in that aspect. It gets tough. When it gets hard you’ve got to think. You’ve got to do the right things. You can’t gamble and think that it’s going to be the winning play. You’ve got to be able to play the full 48 minutes, no matter what’s going on, and hold your head high when you make mistakes. When your job is called upon, you’ve got to do it to the best of your ability. You’ve got to come in and make an impact for the minutes that you’re playing out there. 

"You’ve got to appreciate being out there and just competing. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against. It matters the type of preparation you have, what you’re going out and trying to accomplish. What’s the big picture? What are we doing here? These are things I don’t think some of my teammates have faced of just every single day. It’s not easy to be great. 

"So the things you’re doing, that you’ve done your entire career, of being able to coast by in certain situations, and you’ve gotten away with your youth and stuff like that. Being on a championship ball club, you can’t get away with that. You see the fans going crazy. You see it gets loud. 

"I know from the majority of the fact that we’re better than most teams in this league. It’s just going out and proving it every single night and demanding it and actually showing it. So until we do that every single night and realize our depth is a positive and all the wishes and could haves and should have done that, once that goes out the window, then we’ll be better. But until then, we’re going to keep having these ups and downs and these lulls of going against teams on the road and they just know they can take advantage of us down the stretch, or when this group is in or that’s group out.

"It has to be a cohesion. I’ve got to be better as the leader of the team as doing so and making sure these guys have more experience in certain situations like that, being more communicative. So I put it on me of just being better.”

There’s a lot to digest there. Irving, who has been critical of Boston’s younger players at times this season and seems to be suggesting that the young ‘uns don’t always play with the same urgency that the veterans know is required. Al Horford, who is always careful not to assign much blame, echoed this sentiment when he said, "I don’t think that we’re playing hard enough all the time.”

The Celtics had been up 8 when the reserves started to roll in with 3:16 to play in the first quarter. Boston generated just a single free throw over the final 4:06 of the frame, allowing the Magic to rally back. Boston went another 99 seconds without scoring to start the second quarter as Orlando built as much as an eight-point lead of their own.

It’s unfair to pin Irving’s frustrations on one player; he clearly wants more from all of the stars from last year’s playoff run. That would include someone like Terry Rozier, who missed all five shots he took and had just two assists over 17 minutes while going scoreless. Tatum battled foul trouble Saturday and needed 16 shots for 16 points, while Jaylen Brown and the Celtics wing defenders had trouble corralling Terrence Ross as he erupted for 25 points off the Orlando bench.

Boston had won four straight at home to start the new calendar year and it was fair to wonder if its inconsistencies were behind them. Now, they’ve dropped two in a row to start this road trip.

After Irving’s long response, he was asked to compare the ups and downs of Cleveland’s title teams with what Boston is currently facing. He said there was no comparing them.

"I was on the oldest team in the league, guys were on, I don’t want to say their last legs, but it’s all or nothing. Their window was closing, so they knew it,” said Irving. "Their joy in what they were doing was coming from a place of ‘This is my last thing that I’m doing before my career is over. I’m trying to win a championship.’ Every single day was built towards that.

"Here, these guys are coming into a window where it’s very big, they have 14 years, 13 years, however many years you wanna say, and you know the emphasis on every day doing it, it doesn’t become important to some young guys until they get later in their career where they have to appreciate their talent more, they have to adjust, or do something.”

Irving started to digress, pointing to the strides the team had made before the last two losses. He reaffirmed that he’ll always remain patient but you can tell that some of these tough losses are testing that patience.

"I try not to take too much into other games but this one hurt, just from the simple fact that we haven’t been well on the road, we’ve lost games we should have won, and it’s frustrating,” admitted Irving.

Irving was asked about the difficulty in re-establishing chemistry after he and Hayward missed so much time last season. Stevens had already downplayed that notion, reminding a reporter that this team is 42 games into a new season.

Irving noted that the expectations are simply different this year.

“We had nothing to lose last year,” he said. "We had nothing to lose and everybody could play free, and do whatever they wanted and nobody had any expectations. We were supposed to be at a certain point, we surpassed that. Young guys were supposed to be at a certain point, they surpassed that. 

"We come into this season, expectations, and it’s real. Everyone from the coaching staff to the players, it’s very much real every single day, so, that’s new. It’s tough. It’s hard.”

Irving wants the team’s younger players to work harder when things go awry. He wants them to be mentally tougher when things don’t go as planned. Irving believes that, in order for the Celtics to truly accomplish their goals, this team needs the younger players to want to be great as much as Irving so clearly yearns for this team to reach that level.

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Celtics Talk podcast: Celtics are up 2-0 heading to Indiana, but are they really at their best?

Celtics Talk podcast: Celtics are up 2-0 heading to Indiana, but are they really at their best?

0:33 - Chris Forsberg and Kyle Draper break down the first two games of the Celtics first-round series with the Pacers and debate if the Celtics can go deeper into the playoffs at their current level of play.

4:33 - The guys talk about Al Horford coming up big defensively despite coming down with the flu the night before Game 2.

6:55 - A huge reason why the Celtics are up 2-0 in the season is because Indiana disappeared in the 3rd quarter in Game 1 and the 4th quarter in Game 2. Chris and Kyle look at exactly what went wrong for the Pacers in those quarters.

10:13 - A. Sherrod Blakely is joined by J. Michael from the Indy Star to discuss the series so far and J. zeros in on the Pacers biggest problem in the first two games: defense.

24:22 - Chris and Kyle finish up by talking about what has surprised them the most in other playoff series around the league.


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Welcome to Jaylen Brown's redemption tour

Welcome to Jaylen Brown's redemption tour

BOSTON — If you so desired, you could compile a highlight reel of Boston Celtics players and coaches screaming at Jaylen Brown this season. It felt like nary a game passed without someone (loudly) informing Brown about a missed rotation or defensive miscue. Marcus Morris got so mad about one instance of less-than-desired intensity that he shoved Brown during a timeout in Miami and the video served as an encapsulation of Boston’s frustration-filled 2018-19 season.

Nobody is spared from tongue-lashings in the NBA — heck, cameras caught Brad Stevens giving Kyrie Irving some grief for a lack of defensive focus heading to a timeout during Wednesday’s Game 2 — but it was fair to wonder why Brown so frequently had teammates pointing out his errors.

The answer, teammates and coaches often noted throughout the season, was that everyone simply holds Brown to a higher standard because they know how impactful he can be on the defensive end.

The Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour had been rolling along for a few months now but it’s really been thrust into the spotlight in the playoffs. Brown, who was unfairly maligned for much of Boston’s early-season woes and the way the original starting unit fizzled, has been one of the team’s more consistent presences since the start of the new calendar year. 

But having elevated to a starting role against the Pacers, Brown has upped his defensive intensity and has his coach gushing about his offensive decision-making, all of which has helped Boston to a 2-0 series lead.

"I just think Jaylen has shown tremendous growth,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said on a conference call before the team flew to Indiana on Thursday. "And here’s a guy that, early in the season, got a lot of flak for a small sample size where he struggled. Then he had a really really good year after that.  He just kept working, kept getting better. He’s worked hard on improving things that he needed to improve.”

Brown previously drew effusive praise from Stevens for the percipient kickout pass in the final minute of Game 2 that led to Jayson Tatum’s go-ahead 3-pointer. Brown, who had missed a driving layup that could have tied the game with 1:50 to play, was racing in transition after Al Horford’s game-saving swat of Bojan Bogdanovic when he encountered traffic near the rim. 

Instead of trying to muscle home a difficult layup, Brown got the defense to commit then sent a bullet to the corner where an open Tatum canned the decisive triple.

“He had [the ball] in transition, he had to beat a point guard, he had to beat him with his left hand, his off hand, he had to raise up, get his eyes to the rim, he draws [attention], and he whips a pass across the court and puts it on a dime to his shooter in the corner,” Stevens gushed again on Thursday. "That’s a great pass for a lot of guys -- for everybody, that’s a great play by anybody. 

"And I thought that pass was very indicative of [Brown’s progress]. Not only the physical delivery but also the wherewithal in that moment. [Myles] Turner had been really effective at the rim and for Jaylen to make that play was great. Then, next play down, Jayson gets the drive and Jayson’s got a chance to pull up, and he dumps it off [to Gordon Hayward for a layup]. I just thought those were really really good plays by those two guys late in the game.”

For his part, Brown shrugged off the decision to pass. He said it was the easy choice when block-maestro Turner came over with help. But Brown knew how smitten his coach was with the decision.

“[Stevens] was just smiling and said that was a helluva play, a big-time play,” said Brown. " I said to him, ‘You probably thought I was going to lay it up, didn’t you?’ He laughed, he said, ‘Nah, I knew you were going to make the right play.”

When the Celtics lost Smart to a torn oblique in the final week of the regular season, Brown was the obvious choice to elevate to his starting role. Still, Stevens left the door open to examine other options. Brown has made a strong case to stay in that spot, playing inspired defense against Bogdanovic in Game 1 and making key plays in Game 2.

Brown’s defensive numbers weren’t as glitzy in Game 2, a product of both teams’ offense finding a better rhythm than the Game 1 rock fight, but the NBA’s tracking data suggests Brown’s covers scored just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting overall. Slightly concerning is how the Pacers scored 27 points as a team in the 16 possessions that Brown defended Bogdanovic (with the wing scoring 5 points on 2-of-4 shooting, individually). But Brown’s struggles weren’t for a lack of effort.

And Brown recognizes that, particularly in trying to help fill Smart’s void, his play will be judged largely on his defensive intensity.

"That’s where series change, games change,” said Brown. "I’ve got to hang my hat on defense, whether it’s boxing out, guarding 4s, 2s, some of the ugly possessions. We have guys who can score the ball. We need guys who can grit their teeth and make plays and make things happen in the fourth quarter. 

"Guys like Gordon Hayward, Kyrie, Jayson Tatum – we have a lot of offensive firepower. But we have to make sure we’re sound and solid, diving for loose balls and getting rebounds, boxing out and [being] physical.”

At the start of the season, Brown lingered near the back end of ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus stats. In mid-November, Brown ranked 417th out of the 430 players that had appeared in games to that point. By season’s end, Brown was middle of the pack, elevating to 234th out of 514 total players. He even finished in the positive for defensive plus/minus and his RPM wins — an estimate of the number of wins each player contributed to his team’s total — was plus-2.52, or identical to Marcus Morris, who drew All-Star buzz after a strong first half. 

Brown has been an incredible luxury for the Celtics the past two seasons. Last year, with Irving and Hayward sidelined by injury, Brown led the Celtics in scoring while the team surged to Game 7 of the East finals. This year, with Smart out, it’s Brown trying to give the team a defensive jolt. 

His teammates probably won’t stop screaming at him any time soon. But only because they know how impactful he can be. And they know they need him to reach their loftiest goals this postseason.

And the Jaylen Brown Redemption Tour has potential to help spur the redemption tour the whole team is embarking upon after an underwhelming regular season.

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