BOSTON — Maybe all you need to know about Kyrie Irving’s recent hot streak is that it feels like we've been hearing the phrase, “became the first Celtics player since,” an awful lot around here over the past six days, and that aphorism seems to always end with, "Larry Bird."
Irving has produced four eye-popping stat lines the past four games including a 26-point, 10-assist, 8-steal effort on Monday night while steering the Celtics to a 107-99 triumph over the visiting Heat at TD Garden.
Irving became only the ninth player in NBA history to reach benchmarks of 20-plus points, 10-plus assists, and 8-plus steals since the league started tracking thefts back in 1974. He was the first player to hit those thresholds in more than 31 years, or since Fat Lever in Nov. 1987. Irving was the first Celtics player to reach those levels since Bird did it twice in 1985.
What’s more, Irving is now the first Celtics player to register at least 10 games of 20-plus points and 10-plus assists in a single season since Bird during the 1986-87 season.
Irving is simply sizzling at the moment. He sat out last Monday night in Brooklyn — a much-needed day to rest both his body and his mind after frustrations bubbled over during Boston’s 0-3 road trip — then responded with 27 points and a career-high 18 assists in a win over East-leading Raptors. Two nights later, Irving put up 38 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds while flirting with a triple-double in a win over the Grizzlies. It was a “quiet” 32-point/5-assist/3-rebound effort in Atlanta on Saturday.
☘️CELTICS 107, HEAT 99
His four-game averages: 30.8 points while shooting 60.3 percent overall and 56 percent beyond the 3-point arc. He’s added 11 assists and 2.5 steals per game and the Celtics are 4-0 in that span.
Before Monday’s game, Celtics coach Brad Stevens was asked if he felt like Irving had gone to another level recently. Stevens hesitated to suggest that was even possible while noting, "He’s been awfully good. I don’t know if I ever feel it go next level, I think he’s just -- that’s how good he is.”
But it doesn’t seem farfetched to suggest that Irving might be muscling his way onto some MVP ballots if he keeps up what he’s doing. After Monday’s win, Irving sat 15th in the NBA in scoring, 11th in assists, and 10th in steals. All while playing a mere 32.5 minutes per game.
Irving isn’t just playing well, he’s playing with an extra scoop of sizzle.
After Irving chased down a loose ball for his fifth steal during Monday’s game, he broke out the other way. Exploding towards the basket, he encountered a couple Heat defenders impeding his path so, without breaking his righthand dribble, Irving delivered a no-look between-the-legs bounce pass to Marcus Smart beyond the 3-point arc. Smart ensured highlight material by splashing the triple in what would be a third quarter where the Celtics outscored Miami 37-18.
☘️CELTICS 107, HEAT 99
When Miami rallied within five in the final frame, it forced Irving to expend some extra energy to put the game away. He did so with a flurry of three buckets off strong drives in a 95-second span.
The first, Irving exploded past Tyler Johnson near the 3-point arc, then calmly banked home a leaner closer to the hoop. Next trip down, he split three Heat defenders while bursting into the paint and finishing with a righthanded layup. A short time later, he probed from the perimeter, and danced through three black jerseys for another tough layup that pushed the lead to double figures.
“We have to play perfectly, offensively, when you're dealing with Kyrie Irving on the other end,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "It seemed like he made every single play. When we were trying to get the ball out of his hands, he was just brilliant at the end.”
Echoed teammate Al Horford: "Having that kind of player and that kind of luxury, where we can just let him kind of take over, feels good."
Irving, who has been noticeably more business-like in his postgame briefings this past week maybe trying to simply keep the focus on winning rather than the frustrations Boston hopes are behind them, shrugged off his heroics.
"I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” said Irving. "Being aggressive. That’s really pretty much it. Trying to make plays for myself and my teammates. The ball is in my hands and I’ve just got to make the right plays.”
We’ve come to expect the otherworldly from Irving, offensively, but it’s maybe the elevated defensive play that's even more remarkable. We’ve said it in this space before: Irving isn’t perfect and he still has lapses where he loses his man or gets caught cheating a bit too aggressively. But with plus-defenders surrounding him in Boston’s starting lineup, Irving has a bit of a freedom to roam and try to create some havoc.
Irving’s eight steals on Monday were a combination of being in the right spots and picking opportunities to gamble. There were times when he’d stray in hopes of pickpocketing a careless dribble but other times he had simply himself in the right spot to pounce after tipping a careless feed or entry pass.
“He had a couple [steals] where he saw an opportunity and gambled a little bit. But I thought the rest of them were really good positioning and those -- those are really good,” said Stevens. “Those are exciting because, when you get those, you’re not only making them take a tough shot, you’re in there to take the ball. And he was active with his hands, he was active on tags on the baseline, I just thought he was really locked in.”
Confirmed Horford: "All year he’s been more committed to being better on the defensive end. And tonight he seemed to be at the right spots every time. And that’s a credit of him preparing for the game. I’m just happy to see him having an impact, not only on offense, but on defense as well.”
☘️CELTICS 107, HEAT 99
Turns out that Irving actually battled some nerves the night before Monday’s game. The Celtics asked their star guard if he wanted to deliver some remarks on the Martin Luther King Day and Irving wanted to make sure he got his tribute right.
He did. Wearing an “I Have A Dream” T-shirt, Irving noted how King Jr. was, “a man who truly embodied what it means to be a leader, a visionary, and a dreamer.”
Asked about the moment, he said later, "I was kind of nervous thinking about it, last night, just what to say that would really explain how great of a man he was and what he meant to our society and what he means to me,” said Irving. "For me to be standing here today, to know that the sacrifices of him and countless others have enabled me to be here today and play a game that I love and to spread a message to other young people that have a lot of history to learn about, of what this world actually looked like in the past and what it looks like going forward.
"The next generation is next up and it's my job to continue to be a pioneer and speak up on social justice, inequality and, ultimately, peace. So just happily obliged to do it.”
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