BOSTON — Scrawled across Kyrie Irving’s T-shirt was the message, “You can’t make-believe you’re calm, when you’re not.” It almost certainly wasn’t a deliberate message but it was appropriate.
It had been 671 days since the much-fabled “Playoff Kyrie” graced the NBA’s postseason stage. Irving, who operates with an air of cool-and-collectedness, had admitted in the days leading up to Sunday’s Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers that he was anxious to dive back into playoff basketball but did his best to downplay the magnitude of the moment after missing last year’s playoffs after a pair of knee surgeries.
Teammate Jayson Tatum revealed Sunday that Irving had copped to some jitters at the start of Game 1, and Boston’s All-Star point guard showed it throughout an uneven first half in which he missed seven of the 10 shots he took. But, by the second half, Playoff Kyrie settled in.
Irving scored 13 of his team-high 20 points (matched by Marcus Morris, who kept Boston afloat in the first half) in the second half. Irving was plus-21 in less than 15 minutes of second-half floor time as the Celtics rallied from as much as an 11-point deficit for a gritty 84-74 triumph over the Pacers at TD Garden.
The Celtics lead the best-of-seven series 1-0. Game 2 is back here Wednesday night.
Irving might have offered a hint into his own emotions when he was asked after the game about trying to calm Jaylen Brown down during a brief fourth-quarter flareup with the Pacers.
“Emotions can get the best of you but, once you settle in, you let all of that go,” said Irving. “And then it’s time to move on to the next thing.”
Irving didn’t have a dominant offensive performance but he gave the Celtics exactly what they needed in the second half of Sunday’s game. He upped his defensive intensity, sprawled on the floor for a loose ball, and helped give his team a spark in a rock fight of a game.
This wasn’t the type of tilt that Irving singlehandedly took over and, yet, there were times where he imposed his individual will. Like four minutes into the third quarter, after the Celtics had pulled even, Irving flew in for a rebound then wheeled and accelerated up the court. Racing directly at Bogdan Bogdanovic and getting that favorable matchup, Irving twice dribbled between his legs, then two more quick pounds in front of him, before canning a 19-foot jumper.
Boston never trailed again.
The Celtics were up seven and the Pacers were still looking for their first field goal of the third quarter when Irving stripped Cory Joseph in front of the Boston bench. The two players scrambled to the floor and a sprawling Irving initially generated the turnover when one referee whistled Joseph out of bounds (another official swooped in to overturn that call, saying Irving’s arm had been out of bounds initially when the two players were battling for possession).
Still, the sequence highlighted Irving’s increased activity. And when you’re best player is diving on the court for a 50/50 ball, the rest of the team can’t help but try to match that intensity.
During his postgame walkoff interview with TNT, Irving alluded to the hustle by noting, “I miss [injured Marcus] Smart. Oh, man, I miss him so much. Just some fo the intangibles he brings to the game. … We all had to pick up for him tonight. This one was for you, bro. Fifteen more to go.”
The Celtics had started to separate the game in the fourth quarter and Irving went for the kill. Recognizing a favorable matchup with Domantas Sabonis his nearest defender, Irving waved for Terry Rozier to clear out. Al Horford quickly fed Irving, who pulled up, his leg kicking out as he calmly canned a 3-pointer before turning to look at the fans cheering wildly behind him.
By the time Irving stepped to the line with 6:41 to go in the game, he was serenaded with MVP chants. Sure, no one really believes that Irving had an MVP-type season for a team that wildly underperformed. But Boston fans were simply jazzed to see Irving back on the court. And his impact on how far Boston’s postseason run stretches is undeniable.
Irving can right a lot of the wrongs that he caused this season when he let his emotions get the best of him. This team so clearly feeds off his energy and his play, as Rozier has emphasized repeatedly during the season. Game 1 only reaffirmed that suggestion.
When Irving picked up the intensity, so did his teammates. He finished with a team-high five deflections (a category that Smart typically dominates) and registered one of the six loose balls recovered that the Celtics were credited with (Smart’s replacement in the starting lineup, Jaylen Brown, had two of them).
This was only a small glimpse of the superpowers of Playoff Kyrie. There were emotions to work through for a player that, like his T-shirt suggested, couldn’t make believe he was calm.
It’s been a long year. Two knee surgeries. One roller coaster of a regular season. But now Irving is back in the spot that brings him the most joy.
And it’s his turn to remind the NBA world what he’s capable of on that postseason stage.
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