The question probably doesn’t need to be asked, not when you have this shot on your resume. But pose the question to members of the Celtics that have played against Kyrie Irving during his Cleveland days and it’s like bringing up a traumatic experience.
“Oh, definitely. I can definitely vouch for that,” said Marcus Smart, shaking his head and sighing. "The things that he did in the playoffs against me, against other people, it’s remarkable, man.
"I love playing against Kyrie. But I really love playing with Kyrie. He’s just different [in the playoffs]. He’s a different type of guy where the things that he can do and the way he can affect the game with the way he does it.”
Smart is one of only four players that remain from the 2016-17 team that danced with Irving and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. The mention of Playoff Kyrie seems to have them all rewinding to the same moment: Game 4 in Cleveland. We'll let coach Brad Stevens take it from there.
"The stretch I remember the most was, we found a way to win Game 3 in Cleveland [after losing twice in Boston], and then we’re up 16 in Game 4, I think in the second quarter,” said Stevens, nailing the details of a game Boston owned a double-digit halftime lead.
“[Irving] starts feeling it a little in the second. And then his third quarter was just insane...I just think he has the ability to go on those runs and make tough shots. Inevitably, in the playoffs, it becomes very important to make a play that isn’t there, and we have a great deal of faith and trust in him.”
Irving scored 21 third-quarter points that night, nearly matching Boston’s total output for the frame. He mad 9 of 11 shots in the quarter, including eight buckets over the final 4:48, culminating with a step-back 3-pointer at the buzzer over Terry Rozier that put Cleveland up seven. Irving finished the night with 42 points as he and LeBron James paired up for 48 of Cleveland’s 65 second-half points.
Game. Set. Series.
“First of all, he’s obviously a great player,” said Stevens. “But he’s a great player in January. He’s a great player in April. He’s a great player in October. He’s just a great player.”
Sure, but sometimes it just feels like Playoff Kyrie has a little extra sizzle. And, over the course of a maddeningly inconsistent regular season, it’s sometimes felt like Irving would have to be extraordinary in order for Boston to even have a chance to reach their loftiest of goals.
Still, there is a balance to be struck. Nineteen times in the regular season, Irving scored 30 points or more for Boston. The team was a mere 12-7 in that span. The Celtics posted a 5-0 when Irving went for 38 points or more, with his two highest scoring nights coming against top East competition in visits from Toronto (43 points and 11 assists in November) and Philadelphia (40 points, 10 rebounds on Christmas Day). It seems to hammer home how Irving is capable of going to another level against top-level foes.
Irving has additional motivation this year: He hasn’t been on the court for a playoff game since June 2017 when the Warriors steamrolled the Cavaliers in five games. Irving requested a trade that summer and two knee surgeries last spring ended the possibility of his first playoff ball in green.
Irving tried initially to downplay his own return to the postseason stage. But pressed on the topic in the ramp to Game 1 on Sunday against the Indiana Pacers, he admitted there’s an obvious anxiousness to dive back in.
"I guess you could see that. I'm just ready to get started. It's been a long time trying to get back to this point,” said Irving. "It’s been a year in my career where I've learned a lot about my body. Over the last year, getting two knee surgeries and a nose surgery. Really setting goals for myself and I just have a genuine love for the game and just want to be back to this point, playing at the highest level.”
It also helps that the playoffs offer a chance for Irving to hit the refresh button after a regular season that didn’t always go to plan. Irving’s frustrations, both with Boston’s team struggles and the rumors that often swirled about his individual future, left him brooding, and he compounded matters by not always handling that adversity well.
It contributed heavily to Boston limping to the fourth seed in the East with a disappointing sub-50 win total. Irving admitted after the season that there was “a lot of bulls---“ that he didn’t handle well and seemed to acknowledge that it hindered his team.
For as sensational as he was throughout the regular season, the conflict that he created while trying to figure out how to be a great leader undeniably soured his accomplishments. For Irving, the playoff stage offers a chance to shake the Etch-a-Sketch and change the vision of how the 2018-19 season will be remembered.
"Stats go out the window, everything else in terms of what has happened and transpired throughout the regular season goes out the window,” said Irving. "It’s just like everything is about the true essence of basketball. Nothing else about the drama or extracurricular stuff. I'm excited to be focused on the game and actually talk about basketball instead of sensationalism. I'm just happy about that.”
In three seasons worth of playoff appearances (and 52 total games), Irving has averaged 23.9 points while shooting 46.5% overall and 41.5% beyond the 3-point arc. He owns a true shooting percentage of 57.3% in that span and his net rating is close to plus-9 overall. He’s a bonafide playoff killer.
There is some thought that what the Celtics accomplish over the next two months might dictate whether Irving re-signs in Boston. It seems fair to suggest that, the more success that the Celtics have, the easier the pitch to keep him here becomes. But it’s hard to get inside Irving’s head and there’s a lot of factors at play about how exactly the summer will play out.
What’s far more certain is that, after two long years, Playoff Kyrie gets a chance to reintroduce himself to the NBA world. And he’s ready for that stage.
“I missed it a lot,” said Irving. "Obviously, I said it, it's just the highest level of basketball. I've been training and being a professional since I was 16 years old, just really dedicating myself to the game, sacrificing a lot of my time with family and friends to be able to have a shot at the gold trophy.
"It takes a seven-game series and good teams and good players. To see the players that have done it before me and really idolize how successful they have been under those bright lights, it's something that you admire and want to be a part of.”
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