The Kyrie Irving show has been wildly enjoyable, of course. This is no knock on the excellent and admirable Isaiah Thomas, but Irving’s performance through his first 17 games with the Celtics is a satisfying reminder of what an A-list NBA superstar looks like. This is the player the Celtics have been waiting for since Father Time finally took Paul Pierce one-on-one.
Come to think of it, Irving is playing right now like he belongs in a higher league. He scores with equal creativity with his left hand or his right. He scores off either foot, he scores from long range, he scores when he turns opposing defenders from would-be obstacles into useless traffic cones.
Oh, and he’s a much better passer than advertised, a willing and capable defender, and handles the ball with such magic that a certain old Laker might want to cede him the nickname and go back to answering to Earvin.
Too far? All right, maybe that’s a little much. Hey, it’s easy to get caught up in this. There’s only one Magic. But this here is not hyperbole: I’ve never seen another guard with the electrifying, exhilarating and yet somehow efficient skill-set of Irving. This has been nothing short of magical, and yet it’s as real as can be. Compare his stat line this year to his numbers with the Cavs last year, and they’re virtually identical per minute played. This is who he is.
Against the Mavericks Monday night, the Celtics, their 15-game winning streak in jeopardy, trailed by as many as 13 in the fourth quarter. Yet you couldn’t give up, click off the TV, and write it off as one of those nights, because of Irving and the resilient and talented cast surrounding him. Good decision. The Celtics rallied behind Irving, who took over down the stretch, finishing with 47 points on just 22 shots.
And he does it all – all of it – with distinctive style. During that tour de force performance against the Mavericks – or should I say, his latest tour de force performance, which occurred before his next tour de force performance – he dropped a devastating post move on poor Yogi Ferrell that is illegal in most states, especially Texas. I know nothing about jazz, but I imagine watching Kyrie Irving play basketball looks like what the finest jazz sounds like to an aficionado.
Irving is playing with a facial fracture and has to wear a plastic mask that he clearly hates like it’s a member of LeBron James’s crew. Yet over the last week he’s led the Celtics to a stirring victory over the Warriors, the NBA’s alpha team, then combined to score 77 points on 26 of 34 shooting in wins over the Hawks and Mavericks.
Professional basketball is a grueling grind against the best athletes in the world. It is not easy. He just makes it look that way. He does something every game to make you hit rewind and call the wife and kids in to the room to make them watch the replay. Maybe it’s time for him to up the degree of difficulty. Maybe play a full game lefthanded, like Larry Bird. Or a half in his Uncle Drew getup. Let’s see you do it with the fake gray beard and the prosthetic potbelly now, young fella.
This has been a joy to watch, but it is not new. We have seen Irving do this before, just not on a nightly basis, and not in green and white. You’ll remember that when the Celtics were getting frisky in the Eastern Conference finals in May against the Cavaliers, having won Game 3 and taken a 16-point lead in Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena, it was Irving, even more than James, who put an end to the daydream of an upset. Irving scored 42 points – including 21 in the third quarter, when the Cavs overcame a 10-point halftime deficit – en route to a 112-99 win and a 3-1 series lead. In other words, before joining ‘em, he beat ‘em.
So maybe we should have known he was this extraordinary. Maybe anyone who watched him hit the winning shot in the Finals in Steph Curry’s mug two years ago should have known, too. But I’m not sure anyone did, other than the player himself. (There’s no doubt, by the way, he believes he’s better than Curry.) It’s clear in how he maneuvered his way out of Cleveland that he was tired of being perceived as LeBron’s sidekick, a second banana rather than a genuine superstar in his own right. He was right about himself. The earth in Irving’s universe isn’t flat. It’s scorched.
He’s proved worthy of being the front man for his own excellent band during his brief time with the Celtics. The buzz surrounding him reminds me of Manny Ramirez’s first days with the Red Sox in 2001, or Randy Moss’s first Patriot Sundays in 2007. You knew the player was talented, but you didn’t know you were getting a daily show like this. He’s already becoming one of those one-name guys. He’s Kyrie. No surname required.
It’s funny, the concern after coming to the Celtics was that he would play hero ball, meaning he’d dominate the basketball at the expense of the team game. That hasn’t happened except for the situations when a hero is necessary. In those situations, he’s delivered with inimitable style and Bird-level results.
He’s been all a Celtics fan could have wanted — quick to credit teammates, praiseful of coach Brad Stevens any chance he gets (bet those comments find their way to Cleveland), entertainingly obtuse at times, and playing a complete game on both ends of the floor. I could write another 1,000 words about the Blissful First Games of Kyrie The Celtic right now. But as the Celtics left the court Monday in Dallas, Mike Gorman got it right in two: “Kyrie. Special.’’
We should have known this all along. But what a joy it has been to discover. The only disappointment has been that the Celtics don’t play every day. The waiting for the next Kyrie Show is the hardest part.