Ever since news broke this summer that Kyrie Irving wanted out of Cleveland, and more specifically away from LeBron James, Kyrie been an easy target for slander.
But, through all the hate, the mud-slinging, the controversy surrounding his ideas about the Earth maybe being flat, and his new running mate suffering a horrific leg injury minutes into the season, Kyrie and the Celtics are fuckin’ balling.
Yes, it’s early in the season (it’s really early in the season), but no one expected the Celtics to be playing like this. After losing the first two games of the season, the Celtics have won nine straight and sit atop the Eastern Conference at 9-2.
Kyrie Irving is 8-0 since he said this pic.twitter.com/stFjcx6r90
— Uncle Drew (@UncleDrewGB) November 6, 2017
Fivethirtyeight (which has never predicted anything wrong to my knowledge) ran a piece the day after Gordon Hayward’s injury projecting the Celtics to win 37 games. Much of this forecast relied upon conservative projections for 2nd-year swingman Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.
So far, Brown is averaging 15.4 ppg and 6.4 rebounds a game and Tatum is averaging 14.3 ppg and 6.5 rebounds (have I mentioned that it’s early in the season?).
Brown and Tatum are representative of the team-building strategy Boston GM Danny Ainge has used over the past couple years. Ainge has done extremely well in the draft, taking Brown and Tatum over the past two years when other talent evaluators saw other players as superior options.
But young, promising players like Brown and Tatum, as well as Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and even Daniel Theis, don’t typically translate into wins. And people around the NBA wondered when Ainge would do something with his ridiculous collection of assets. Well, the past two summers Ainge has added Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, and Irving.
Irving and Horford are making the Celtics, who have the 5th youngest roster in the NBA, contenders.
Against Oklahoma City on Friday, Kyrie dropped 22 points in the 2nd half as the Celtics overcame a 55-37 halftime deficit to beat Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Melo, and the Thunder.
In the 4th quarter against the Thunder, Kyrie showed the cold bloodedness that’s made him one of the best closers in basketball. He killed the Thunder with a variety of wild dribbling moves, playing off big man Al Horford’s pick and pops, and sinking shots late in the shot clock.
It’s just Kyrie Irving scoring 22 of his 25 points in the 2nd half of a comeback win vs Westbrook & the Thunder pic.twitter.com/0gKF64rFb7
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 4, 2017
Kyrie Irving is the best closer in basketball pic.twitter.com/B1UiRxdiB5
— NBA Buckets (@NBA_Buckets) November 4, 2017
It’s clear that Melo, PG, and Russ are still taking time to adjust and the Thunder are far from the finished product, but one of the most fascinating things to see with the Celtics this season is how seamlessly Kyrie has integrated into and become the Celtics offense.
It took under nine games for Kyrie and Al Horford to develop basically perfect synergy in dribble hand off plays. They’re so good already. pic.twitter.com/G9iS3AZZKo
— Sam Vecenie (@Sam_Vecenie) November 4, 2017
Horford and Irving have wild chemistry already, working a devastating pick and pop that can be suicide for opposing defenders choosing to bottle up a Kyrie drive or leave the suddenly sharpshooting Horford on the perimeter.
Irving can also work off Horford when the big man has the ball. Horford is one of the best passing big men in the NBA and he continuously finds Irving on cuts to the basket with precision passes.
After an underwhelming first year in Boston where he looked kind of lost at times, Al Horford is thriving with Irving. These dudes clearly love playing with each other and are feeding off their respective skillsets.
Last night, in a surprisingly close game against the 2-8 Hawks, Kyrie’s highlight plays dotted social media.
Kyrie Irving is Basketball Houdini pic.twitter.com/JPWXIk2Ii6
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 7, 2017
His handles are unstoppable and he can sink virtually any shot on the court, it makes him virtually impossible to defend (look at Dennis Schroeder sprint away from Kyrie in confusion or self-preservation).
“I got him.”
“Ok that was a nice cross.”
“Oh hell nah.”
“You take him im outta here.”
– Dennis Schröder pic.twitter.com/gsIV8iulLH
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) November 7, 2017
The Celtics have surrounded Irving with spot up shooters and athletes that perfectly complement his game.
If Irving drives to the basket and gets doubled, he can find Horford springing to the top of the key for a 3, or a Brown and Tatum corner 3 or drive to the basket.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) November 7, 2017
Late in last night’s game, while trailing to the Hawks with under two minutes to play, Kyrie hit a 3 off some great two man work with Horford. Then Tatum hit a corner 3 off a pass from Marcus Smart to retake the lead that the Celtics would never give up.
It’s pretty damn impressive how well Tatum (19) and Brown (21) have dealt with the workload and pressure this season in their respective rookie and 2nd seasons.
The only teams younger than the Celtics are the 76ers, the Lakers, the Suns, and the Bulls, none of which will sniff the playoffs (barring a wild run by Philly). This is representative of both how much the Celtics are asking of Tatum and Brown, but also how well they’ve responded to that ask.
After the game, Kyrie was asked about Tatum’s go-ahead shot. He didn’t seem overly impressed with the rookie, saying he’d be cursing Tatum out if he didn’t shoot it,
“That pass has to be made. And (Tatum) has to shoot it. And if he doesn’t shoot it, then I’m going to be right in his face telling him that he needs to (bleeping) shoot it.”
Tatum had 21 and 8 last night and his early season numbers (it’s still early by the way) put him in pretty unique company.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 7, 2017
While it may seem like tough love, Kyrie’s assertion that Tatum ‘has to shoot it’ shows that he’s settling into his role as a leader on the Celtics.
It’s not much unlike his former teammate LeBron James’ attitude towards role players on his team, if you’re being put in a position to succeed, you better capitalize.
Kyrie Irving is the best player on the best team in the NBA so far.
— HoopsHype (@hoopshype) November 7, 2017
But ultimately, this Celtics team is winning because of their defense. After having a pretty porous defense last season (ranked 13th out of 30), Boston is now 1st in defensive rating, according to Basketball Reference. This effort is shockingly being led by Kyrie Irving, who leads the league in steals per game so far.
It’s not just Kyrie though. The Celtics are playing stifling defense with a group of long-armed athletes that swarm the opponent and can switch across multiple positions.
Brown and Tatum nominally start at the shooting guard and wing, but both spend time playing power forward in head coach Brad Stevens’ fun small lineups, showing their versatility.
Currently Horford and Irving are the two top players in the NBA in defensive win shares (an advanced stat that measures defensive output), while Brown and Tatum are 4th and 6th in the league respectively.
— ☘BlessUpBeanTown☘ (@CelticsNeed18) November 3, 2017
Anyone who watched Irving during his time in Cleveland, or Duke for that matter, didn’t see any possibility of him becoming an elite defender.
Yes, it’s early (it’s really early) but the Celtics have crafted a damn good team with a damn good system from Brad Stevens, that will make them contenders in the East despite Hayward’s injury.
After years of being the feel-good story, a team of gritty competitors, the Celtics now have a legitimate star in Kyrie Irving. They may end up falling short of the Cavaliers or the Warriors this season, but they’re building a juggernaut for the future.
And in the meantime, they’re must-watch TV (stop being a bum and cop League Pass).