Behind star play from their point guard, the Celtics are establishing themselves as one of the East’s best teams.
Stardom may be the greatest on-court advantage in the NBA. This well-worn aphorism bears itself out almost yearly at the highest levels of the playoffs, in improbable streaks of Finals appearances and in the day-to-day standing of teams. A singular talent at the height of his powers can carry his team further than most any collection of solid players, even one that plays with intense unity and verve. The Celtics have recurrently known the losing end of that phenomenon, but are now experiencing if from the other side, having treaded water for the first two months of the season behind Kyrie Irving’s spectacular individual play as Brad Stevens toggled with its rotations and strategy in search of something cohesive.
Now, Boston is among the most dynamic and versatile teams in the Eastern Conference, and Irving is steering their offense with the sort of efficiency and understanding he never could in Cleveland. Creating space has never been an issue for Irving, the scorer, but his style raised fair — if slightly overblown – skepticism of his ability to lead an efficient offense as a facilitator. He’ll never be a pass-first point guard, and any team hoping to confine him to that role would be left sorely disappointed, but this season he is balancing discretion with his natural instinct to score at every turn, and the Celtics are better for it. In the absence of the free-flowing, egalitarian approach many envisioned this team running, possessions are instead predicated upon Irving’s offensive acuity, hinging on his whims and creativity.
During Boston’s early slump, that approach – and another top-five defense – kept the Celtics alive as Toronto, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia vaulted to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. As the Celtics grow healthier and more comfortable with one another, Irving now serves to make a versatile attack all the more dangerous. The attention he draws by knifing into the lane and mesmerizing defenders outside of it creates essential breathing room for Boston’s offense. Gordon Hayward can more capably serve as a complementary playmaker off of ball reversals, while Jayson Tatum finds more space to pick his spots against a defense that is already in motion than against one focused on his every move. Nearly every player in Boston’s rotation scores more efficiently when sharing the floor with Irving, and a dominant offense becomes a substandard one when he leaves the court.
Involving his teammates more often, in turn, creates more opportunity for Irving, who benefits from the profusion of spacing and playmaking Boston can put on the floor at any given moment. He is having one of his best seasons as both a scorer and a facilitator, and will likely earn All-Star and All-NBA honors. His masterful handle and touch around the basket often obscure the rest of his offensive arsenal. Irving is among the best pull-up shooters in the NBA this side of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard or LeBron James, and can manufacture what little space he needs with remarkable flair. The mere threat of Irving stopping on a dime and launching a jumper sets up easier paths to the basket, and his inimitable ability to carve out space inside keeps defenders far back enough for him to launch:
He works patiently in the pick-and-roll, keeping all options open until deciding just how he’d like to beat his man. Few players use their defender’s movement against them as well Irving, who upon gaining a step on his man, uses lithe movement and arrhythmic timing to keep contesting opponents out of the play. His ability to contort in every which way renders challenging shots impossible as he finishes with dazzling craft:
His array of moves & finishes would seem fanciful for any other player, but Irving is the rare guard who seems comfortable finishing at any degree of difficulty. He has learned to find easier shots playing alongside so many other threats in Stevens’ offense, but still buries difficult ones at a high rate. That skill has proven valuable in the playoffs before, and will again, should Boston make any serious Finals push. Still, Irving cannot carry these Celtics on his own. His mere presence does not guarantee an unstoppable offense like Curry’s or LeBron’s does, and his defensive limitations might become severe liabilities in any other system.
He is, however, Boston’s most indispensable offensive weapon and the piece that will determine the team’s playoff upside. For all of the threats the Celtics have, none are quite as immutable as Irving when defenses are most prepared and resolute. Until then, Boston will continue to smooth the wrinkles that have kept it from becoming anything more than the sum of its talented parts. Irving affords them the time and flexibility to figure things out and, eventually, step into what was once considered the Celtics’ rightful place at the top of the Eastern Conference.