OKLAHOMA CITY — Both Kyrie Irving and Paul George broke for the ball at almost the same instant. Jayson Tatum’s pull-up jumper with little more than a minute to play Thursday night had shot hard off the back iron and sailed over the four Oklahoma City Thunder players in the painted area. Now, as the ball bounced free at the elbow, Irving and George found themselves in a footrace for the rebound.
Accelerating from in front of the Boston bench, Irving was able to lunge in front of George with his left hand and somehow gain control of the ball, all while George’s swipe attempt left him punching at air and then clapping his hands in exasperation.
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It was the sort of hustle play these Celtics so often made last season. The gritty plays that set this team apart in their playoff run. And it was exactly the sort of effort that this team has been lacking early this season.
The importance of that rebound can’t be overstated. The Celtics, having already erased one 16-point deficit, were trying to desperately claw their way back again after falling back behind by nine with little more than four minutes to play.
The Thunder were up two when Tatum misfired and, if George wins the race, Oklahoma City could have taken the clock down to 40 seconds and potentially pushed their lead to two possessions.
That it was Irving with the hustle play was notable, too. After Boston’s disheartening loss to the Magic earlier this week, Irving expressed a desire to improve his defensive consistency this season, an eyebrow-raising comment from a player whose impact is felt greater on the other end of the floor. For all his otherworldly offensive talents, hustle and defense are not always two words associated with Irving’s play.
But in a crucial spot, the face of the franchise came up with a must-have play. As teammate Al Horford would later note, “We had to get this win tonight.”
After getting the rebound, Irving calmly reset the offense. Horford recognized that Irving was isolated on Alex Abrines and cleared out the paint. Irving promptly accelerated past Abrines, driving hard to his right, and calmly finished a game-tying, right-handed layup with 56.6 seconds to play.
Next trip down, Marcus Smart collapsed the defense with a baseline drive and fired an improbable fading baseball pass to Al Horford, who quickly shuffled to Marcus Morris for the go-ahead 3-pointer.
None of it matters without Irving’s hustle.
Irving finished with 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in 33 minutes. More telling, four of those five rebounds came over the final four minutes. And each was spectacular in their own way. On one, Irving outleaped Thunder 7-footer Stevens Adams to tip out a rebound to Horford. Later, he went over the top of Adams again then wrestled the ball away from Jerami Grant.
The common thread: Effort. Irving outworked his opponents to get those rebounds. And in a joy-filled-and-relieved Celtics locker room, Irving seemed to recognize how everyone on the roster needs to step outside their comfort zone a bit for this team to thrive.
"I think that we would want to err on the side of being one and being together and playing well together. It’s just a lot better basketball that way,” said Irving. “Like I said, it starts with me, too. It’s a challenge for me of still remaining how great I am as a player but more or less elevating myself as a leader on this team. So, of course, I have that same mindset: I want to go out there and score 30, I want to go out there and have 15 assists, I want to go out there and do everything. But at the same time I have other complementary players and great players that do other great things, so you have to let them be them as well.”
Irving doesn’t have to put up eye-popping box score stats for this team to be great. The hustle on those rebounds meant more than any of his dazzling finishes or feeds.
Irving seems to understand that, to reach his championship goals, he must reinvent how we look at Irving.
"It’s a hard thing to hold onto of being a certain way for a certain amount of time in your career and then when you come into a situation like this where you’re playing with a lot of good players sometimes you can dim down how special you are or overthink how you’re supposed to be playing,” said Irving.
Later he added, "That is something that’s scary to think about as professionals, that we still have to be better as individuals and better as a team but it makes this year, going through it, a lot more special to see the growth that we can have, us getting better every single day as a team.”
Irving still has a long ways to go to change his reputation as an often-disinterested defender. Through five games, the Celtics own a team-worst defensive rating of 105.3 when Irving is on the court, a jarring number when you consider Boston’s team rating is 96.6 — a mark that leads the scoring-boom NBA by 4.4 points per 100 possessions. Boston’s defensive rating plummets to an impossibly low 69.9 during the 75 minutes that Irving has been off the court.
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For Irving, it comes down to effort and desire. He’s never going to be a lockdown defender but he’s got enough defensive talent around him here to thrive if he simply avoids those moments where his focus wanes.
Irving wouldn’t be denied on Thursday. His focus was there. In a game the Celtics desperately needed, in moments where Boston desperately needed a play, it was Irving who rose to the challenge.
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