INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan had already fielded a couple of questions about the difficulty of defending Kyrie Irving when a more direct inquiry arrived.
"Is it as simple to say that they have Kyrie and you don’t? Or is it deeper than that?” a reporter asked, essentially suggesting that Boston’s 3-0 series lead hinged heavily on Irving’s play.
McMillan quickly praised the Celtics as a whole, singling out the efforts of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in Boston’s 104-96 Game 3 triumph on Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the question wasn’t without merit. There have been instances throughout this series where it feels like Irving has simply willed his team to victory, particularly in big-time moments.
Case in point: The Celtics were clinging to a two-point lead with less than five minutes to play Friday when Irving got matched up defending Bojan Bogdanovic in transition. Irving shuffled up close as Domantas Sabonis started in his direction to set a screen. Before the big man could get there, Bogdanovic tried to swing his dribble towards the left side but Irving pounced. He timed his swipe perfectly and dislodged the ball. With an off-balance Bogdanovic leaning one way, Irving grabbed the loose ball and quickly flipped it to Al Horford following the theft.
Irving then called for the ball back and fired a fancy feed to Jayson Tatum under the basket but the Pacers had raced over to prevent a layup. Irving ended up with the ball again and, with the shot clock in single digits, he drove at Sabonis.
Recognizing that he wasn’t likely to get to the rim, Irving settled for a high-degree-of-difficulty baseline fadeaway that he somehow lofted over Sabonis’ full-extension reach and through the cylinder.
“Some of the shots [Irving] hit — he had [a] driving layup [in the fourth quarter], which was a good move but that little floating shot he hit was just a joke,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. "He’s ridiculous.”
Irving, who arrived at the podium apologizing for some sniffles, wasn’t his typical efficient self on this night. He missed 12 of the 19 shots he put up, but his two makes in the final six minutes were big-time baskets. Irving added two of his game-high 10 assists in the final stretch, twice feeding Al Horford after sucking in the defense with his drives.
“Very comforting,” Horford said when asked about how much easier a player like Irving makes things in crunch time. "Just gives us a lot of confidence. We know that if we need a basket or we need a play, we can go to him.”
Horford was asked if any of Irving’s late-game wizardry surprises him after two seasons together.
"You know what, it does surprise me,” said Horford. "But I know that, at the end of it, it’s usually going to be something positive. The shot can be difficult [or] whatever it is, he just has such a good feel for the game, when he needs to shoot it, when he needs to pass it. And making the right play in those moments. I think that’s very special.”
Give the Pacers a lot of credit for three very competitive showings to start this series. There’s a very strong case to be made that Indiana could just as easily be up 3-0. Alas, it goes back to what McMillan was asked Friday.
The Celtics have the luxury of an Irving when the game is in the balance. Following the season-ending injury to Victor Oladipo, the Pacers don’t have that sort of presence whose hands they can put the ball in when they absolutely must have a bucket, or a player they can throw on Kyrie when they absolutely need a stop.
It was perfectly fitting that Oladipo, who had been given clearance to travel from Florida to attend Game 3, was waylaid by poor weather conditions that have been causing delays in these parts all week. Oladipo is expected in town for Game 4 Sunday, which might just be the Pacers’ final game of the season.
There is no denying that the Celtics are the more talented team in this series. They haven’t always played like it, but having proven closers like Irving and Horford have distinguished the two teams.
It’s no coincidence that a Boston team that went 1-7 on the road last postseason is now 1-0 away from home when it has a healthy Irving. And now with three wins under their belts, you can feel the confidence growing in this group.
"The confidence is just at a high level when we know what everyone’s capable of on the floor,” said Irving. "As you saw down the stretch, everyone made some big plays. They were little things in the grand scheme but, if you think about it, they were big plays. An offensive rebound here, a tip out here, getting back in transition. Those are all the things you need to do to really guarantee yourself a win.
"We understood that they were playing with a desperate mentality. They didn’t want to go down 3-0. Game 4 is going to be even higher intensity but this is a great stepping stone for us to continue to go after the big picture and that’s getting closer and closer to 16 wins. That’s all it takes.”
A lot of people scoffed in February when Irving suggested on the heels of an embarrassing loss in Chicago that the team was simply focused on the postseason. When asked why Boston would have success in the playoffs, Irving boldly declared it would be because of his presence.
Turns out he might not have been exaggerating. In the postseason, you so desperately need closers, players who are capable of stepping up in big-time situations. And few have a resume like Irving.
In the Celtics’ morning shootaround on Friday, Irving was asked whether his now-famous 3-pointer in Game 7 of the 2015 Finals at Oracle Arena had really bolstered his confidence about winning on the road in the playoffs.
“It’s definitely one of those experiences and memories that sticks with me. It’ll stick with me for the rest of my career, just because of obviously the circumstances we were under,” said Irving. "We had really nothing to lose at that point. We were down 3-1 and just went out and just really accomplished something bigger than ourselves. But, here, I just try to take that experience and give it to my teammates of what Indiana’s going to be like, of what the road’s going to be like, especially in the playoff atmosphere.
"I’m going to make some mistakes. We’re all going to make some mistakes. But it’s always about the most important thing and that’s staying together. I’ve talked about it throughout the season but a 14-point lead in the playoffs can be erased in a matter of three minutes, just waiting for the other team to get undisciplined or they get comfortable or they think that the game is over. You’re always in the game if you stay together.”
How prophetic. The Celtics built a 15-point lead on the strength of a dazzling 41-point first quarter, only to cough it up in a dismal second quarter in which Boston scored just 18 points.
That gave Indiana a chance to steal a win late, even after their own equally abominable third quarter (12 points on 5-for-24 shooting). But Irving wasn’t about to let this game get away. And he proved it with the absurd make over Sabonis.
"They’re doing a great job of forcing me left, bringing someone up to the other elbow, making sure I see bodies on all my drives,” said Irving. "It’s my responsibility to see where I can be aggressive. I see Sabonis on me, any big, or anybody for that matter I feel like if I have an advantage I can go and attack. It’ll be the same mindset.
"I have the confidence in my team to do that and do that at a very high level. So coming off, once I initiated that move going down the stretch against Sabonis, I knew they were going to load up even more. Our middle pick and roll opened up and as I started to drag out a big, and Al was open a few times and he was in the right spot and knocked it down. But I feel like, throughout the game, in the pick-and-roll, we had some open shots that Al, just very makeable shots, and I just kept giving him that confidence. Just keep shooting. Those shots are going to be the same whether you’re getting them in the first quarter or the fourth. It’s just about knocking them down and having confidence.”
The Celtics don’t win Friday without the efforts of their entire rotation. Brown lit the team’s offensive fuse in the first half and didn’t miss until the fourth frame. Marcus Morris reprised some of his Game 1 heroics. Terry Rozier has brushed off a frustrating regular season to emerge as a consistent postseason contributor based largely on his energy and defensive intensity.
But Boston is up 3-0, in large part, because they have Irving. McMillan can’t admit as much without diminishing the contributions of Irving’s supporting cast but outsiders can scream it.
Irving is a difference-maker and this series has proven it.
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