By the time Kyrie Irving took his place in front of the cameras and microphones in Memphis on Saturday night, at least one teammate had already suggested it was the All-Star point guard who changed the tenor of the game by challenging his teammates at halftime.
Irving quickly downplayed the suggestion but did so while repeatedly looking over his shoulder. Scrawled behind him on the team’s whiteboard was what he would soon reveal was the remnants of his own halftime scribblings, aimed at showing his teammates how exactly to exploit a Memphis team that had bottled Irving and the Celtics offense up through the first two quarters.
"It wasn’t so much a challenge,” Irving started to tell reporters in Memphis before launching into a coach-like breakdown of what he was seeing from the point guard position, and what he felt needed to change in order for Boston to rally back.
Shaking off his own uncharacteristically haphazard first half (4 points, 1-of-4 shooting, minus-10), Irving scored 22 second-half points on 7-of-12 shooting, all while finishing with 13 assists overall as Boston rallied for a 112-103 triumph at FedEx Forum.
“I think that, at the half, Kyrie [Irving] just challenged all of us to be better, and Coach [Brad Stevens] as well,” said veteran Al Horford. "I felt like we came out with better energy, played much harder.”
It was just the latest instance of Celtics players pointing to Irving’s leadership as instrumental in rescuing Boston from its uneven ways. But Irving didn’t just speak a comeback into existence, he did his part on the floor as well — at both ends.
CELTICS 112, GRIZZLIES 103
As good as the Celtics were, offensively, in the second half, it was their defensive intensity over the final two quarters that truly changed the game. Hustle-filled Irving repeatedly launched himself on the floor trying to corral loose balls and that helped set the tone. Irving's more defensive savvy teammates, especially Marcus Smart, took the baton from there, smothering a Grizzlies team that ate the Celtics up inside in the first half. Memphis committed 10 second-half turnovers leading to 19 points.
Boston limited Memphis to 39 second-half points after giving up 38 second-quarter points and digging itself a 17-point halftime hole. The comeback was a team effort, with Horford making special mention of the reserve-heavy lineup that opened the fourth quarter, one that featured second-year big man Guerschon Yabusele, who turned in 16 quality minutes and finished plus-11, the second best number on the team behind only Irving.
But, in crunch time, it was the veteran lineup of Irving, Horford, Smart, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris that repeatedly came up with clutch plays.
There was a particularly notable sequence with the Celtics clinging to a one-point lead with under three minutes to play. Horford got isolated on Mike Conley but, instead of panicking or trying to get switched back, Horford dug in and challenged a Conley drive. Conley did get past Horford but fumbled the ball as help arrived and Irving picked up the loose ball and was able to pitch it ahead to Hayward for a layup.
CELTICS 112, GRIZZLIES 103
Irving had subbed back in with Boston down 90-84 with 7:28 remaining in the game. He scored or assisted on all but two field goals the rest of the way. Irving had 10 points and five assists during that 28-point outburst.
Irving, who seems to get his biggest enjoyment from overcoming adversity, seemed quite pleased with the team’s response. He downplayed it when a reporter wondered if it was maddening to watch the Celtics stumble through the first half and then dominate in the second. That’s life on the road for a young team, Irving explained. But clearly he wasn’t going to let this one get away.
Irving continues to be absolutely spectacular this season. It’s felt a bit like the Celtics have squandered some of the best basketball of Irving’s career with inconsistent play early in the season. In a league of absurd performances, Irving might have muscled his way into the MVP conversation a bit more if Boston’s record was a bit glossier.
A loss on Saturday in Memphis would have been the team’s fifth defeat in seven games. Boston was in danger of slipping 5 games back of East co-leaders Milwaukee and Toronto.
It’s felt at times this season like the Celtics don’t have the mental toughness that was their hallmark last season. Boston entered Saturday’s game just 2-12 in games in which they trailed by 12 or more this season. Nothing about the way the team played in the first half suggested a comeback was imminent.
But Irving clearly helped inspire the locker room. The other veterans followed his lead, including Hayward who, if he’s going to get crushed every time he plays poorly, deserves special mention for his two-way contributions on a night he chipped in 14 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds, all while playing some excellent defense to help aid the rally.
Irving has so clearly been this team’s brightest star all season long but it's the way he’s embraced being a two-way contributor and increased his voice in the locker room that makes what he’s doing all that much more remarkable. It’s hard to imagine where this team might be without Irving’s contributions.
Now Irving's challenge is finding a way for the Celtics to bottle up some of these good vibes. A particularly favorable home slate awaits in January but not before a visit to typically daunting San Antonio on New Year’s Eve.
Will the Celtics eventually be able to get off this early season roller coaster — or at least just enjoy a bit of a sustained climb instead of these frequently nauseating dives? One thing is more certain: Irving is going to do whatever he can to get this team on that right track, whether that’s leading on the court or off.
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