When I was in Boston before the start of the season, Kyrie Irving talked at length about how he was the only player on the Celtics to have ever played under the weight of championship expectations. He explained how different an experience that was going to be for these young guys, and how he was going to be the guy to lead them, teach them, mold them. It made -- and still makes -- obvious sense. Irving has won a championship. He's played in three NBA Finals -- three more than the rest of the Celtics' roster combined. He hit one of the biggest shots in history. Kyrie's resume is unquestioned, as is his status as Boston's best player and a fringe MVP candidate.
The Celtics are NOT better without Kyrie Irving -- Boston team president Danny Ainge dismissed any belief to the contrary as '.' That's not what this is about.
This is, however, about Boston's 9-2 record without Irving in the lineup this season. This is the same team that advanced to Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, again without Irving playing even a single postseason minute. Perhaps it's possible that the teacher can learn a few things from the students, too. The ball moves more without Irving, as evidenced by Boston's assist percentage when he sits. Players have said they can get stuck watching Kyrie do his thing.
Irving told CBS Sports before the season that one of his main jobs as the year progressed would be making sure the Celtics didn't fall into too much one-on-one play and that ball movement remained a priority. He did that too much to start the season, at the expense of his own offense, which the Celtics need. The middle ground between Kyrie hunting his own offense and the Celtics functioning as a ball-sharing unit is where the best version of this team lies. When they find it, they're an absolute title contender. When they don't, they're frustratingly inconsistent.
To the obvious point that the Celtics are not better without Kyrie, look at the on/off numbers: When he plays, they have a plus-8.9 net rating; when he sits, it falls to plus-1.7. That seven-point difference per 100 possessions is the best mark on the team. Context is key in all this. Sure, the Celtics get worse when Kyrie goes off the floor for normal rest, because those are a bunch of small samples over multiple games added up. Within a given game, it's hard to play one way with Kyrie, then just flip the switch and play differently for the five minutes he's resting. When Boston gets full games -- and certainly full stretches of games -- to play without him, that's where you see what they can do without him. Again, 9-2 this season.
There's also context to that record, by the way. Of those nine wins, only two came against plus-500 teams, and one of those was the Nets -- not exactly a juggernaut. The game that really has people talking about this, of course, is Boston's most recent victory over the Sixers in Philly. That's a real victory over a real team and real evidence that, perhaps, Irving isn't the only player capable of "teaching" these guys how to win. They've done a lot of that without him. Perhaps that part of Irving's hand has been a little overplayed.
Last thought: Let's not make a huge deal about this whole "Celtics without Kyrie" thing. It's something to consider as it pertains to how the Celtics can find their best version by April, but all year long, Kyrie -- and the Celtics as a whole -- have made a mountain out of every molehill. Sure, it's been a bumpy season relative to expectations, and indeed, that has always been Irving's point. Everything, especially the bad stuff, is magnified when you get saddled with championship expectations.
But has it really been that bad?
The Celtics have a top-10 offense and a top-five defense. They have the third-best net rating in the league. They're a combined 6-2 against the Sixers, Raptors and Bucks -- presumably their three biggest roadblocks on a potential road to the Finals. More than one scout I've talked to has said when the Celtics are clicking, they're still the best team in the East. Versatility has reigned supreme in the last few postseasons, and no team in the East is more versatile than Boston. One example: Al Horford continues to give Joel Embiid nightmares.
This is a conference title-contending team, especially if Gordon Hayward rounds into at least consistently productive form by April, and from a matchup standpoint, the Warriors are on record saying they still think the Celtics pose the biggest threat to them. Let's not let that get lost by turning every struggle the Celtics have had this season into something more than it is.
Trae Young's sneaky season
Trae Young might never fully get out of Luka Doncic's shadow. But he's going to be his own kind of great player. We all know he hasn't shot the ball the way people expected him to, particularly from 3. But that's coming around. Since Dec. 1, Young is shooting over 36 percent from beyond the arc. Over seven games in February, he's shooting better than 42 percent. Not long ago, Young posted at least 23 points and eight assists in five straight games. The last rookie to do that was Oscar Robertson.
Offensively speaking, there has been nothing to suggest that Young isn't already on an All-Star track. He's a brilliant passer, and I don't use that word lightly. If you've watched him, you know. If you haven't, do so. Young told me before his rookie season began that his favorite stat is the assist. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk and coach Llyod Pierce both told me they felt passing was Young's best asset, and they appear to have been dead on in that assessment. Young has the sixth-most assists in the league entering the All-Star break. He also has a killer floater and other creative shots in the lane to take advantage of his probing talents. He can create space with his handle and beat just about anyone off the dribble.
That's LeBron James, ya'll:
Here he takes the bump from LeBron and finishes the and-1 in crunch time to help the Hawks seal a win:
Young's defense is atrocious. There's no other way to put it. Earlier this season, Schlenk told me that's one of the two things they're stressing on Trae: He has to play defense, whatever it takes, get in the weight room, watch the film, make the effort. It's vital to his own development and the improvement of a young team that is so dependent on Young to carry them forward. The other thing they want him concentrating on is shot selection. He's gotten much better in this area.
Forget the numbers, his off-the-dribble 3s are a major weapon that is only going to get more deadly as Young settles in to his confidence. Becoming more of an off-ball threat is next in line for a shooter of his caliber, and with the quietly solid secondary playmakers the Hawks are acquiring -- Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman -- they are trending in the direction of a team that wants to use Young as a combo guard dual threat -- a Stephen Curry lite, if you will, equally dangerous on and off the ball. Even through the "struggles," Young is, all told, averaging just under 18 points and eight assists a night for the season. As a rookie. This dude's a player.
Putting Pacers' run in perspective
After losing four straight games immediately following Victor Oladipo's season-ending quad rupture, the left-for-dead Pacers rattled off six straight wins before losing to the Bucks on Wednesday night. It's a nice story, but a little perspective here: Of those six wins, only one came against a plus-.500 team, the Clippers, who just traded away their best player. The other victories were against the Heat, the Cavs, the Hornets, a Pelicans team playing without Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic, and the post-trade-deadline Lakers who were busy bathing in self pity.
Give the Pacers credit. When Oladipo went out, I talked to people in the league who felt the talks of Indiana's inevitable drop-off were overblown. This is a solid team with a simple, disciplined style, particularly on the defensive end, where Nate McMillan stressed to me earlier this season they don't look to switch or do anything fancy. The Pacers take the the old-school challenge every night: They fight over screens and stick with their matchups, whenever possible, through the whole possession. They communicate. Myles Turner protects the rim. They play hard. Outside of Oladipo, they have better players than you think. These things win you a lot of regular-season games.
But the six-game winning streak isn't indicative of anything more than that. The Pacers have beaten up on bad teams all year long -- going 27-7 vs. sub-.500 teams through Wednesday. That's all they've done here. It's a reminder: Whenever a team goes on a nice winning streak, particularly an unexpected one, always check the schedule.
James Harden put up 42 points on Wednesday night against the Timberwolves, but I'm here to tell you what you already know if you watched the game: Josh Okogie straight punked Harden on a couple of occasions. Watch here as Okogie first cuts off Harden's penetration, then digs at the ball to disrupt Harden's handle without fouling, then recovers to the 3-point line to flat-out stuff Harden's seemingly unstoppable step-back:
People, that honestly might be the defensive play of the year. It has to be up there. But that wasn't all. On this next one, Harden tries the crossover that has left so many defenders seeking out ankle surgeons ...
On another possession, Okogie got called for a block when he anticipated Harden's move and appeared to get his chest in front of him. He dug at the ball without fouling to disrupt Harden's handle and rhythm repeatedly. He was an absolute menace, and he scored 16 points off the bench to boot. Minnesota does not win that game without Okogie. People ask: "How do you guard Harden?" Well, Okogie laid down a blueprint in stretches on Wednesday. And Harden still had 42. So have fun with that.
Lakers missing Lonzo
Speaking of defense, when Lonzo Ball went down with a Grade 3 ankle sprain on Jan. 19, the Lakers had the sixth-best defense in the league. Since that time, with Lonzo in street clothes, they have the second-worst defense. All told, the Lakers are giving up almost 13 more points per 100 possessions without Lonzo -- from a 105.9 to a 118.7 defensive rating. There is no explanation needed for how huge a fall that represents.
Is it all Lonzo? No. Other than the Lakers going in the tank when LeBron went out, it's almost never about just one player with these things. But there's no doubt that Lonzo's defense at the point is as under-appreciated by the masses as it's missed by the Lakers. To be honest, for all the talk of Lonzo's special passing skills and overall vision and feel offensively (all of which are very good), defense is arguably his best asset at this point. He's not just better than people expected him to be. He's a real-life game-changing defender.
Just looking at the traits, Lonzo is long and athletic and as instinctual as he is with the ball in his hands. He anticipates screens and beats them. He makes multiple efforts. He cuts off penetration. He battles and holds ground in the post. He flies around and disrupts plays, which often sparks the Lakers' offense going the other way. You hear the word "pace" a lot around NBA circles these days. Pace can be oversold as some great offensive thing when you're simply taking the ball out of the net and running down and gunning your own shot. When you're getting stops and steals to start your pace, that's real game-changing stuff. Lonzo is where a lot of that starts for the Lakers, and they're really missing it right now. A little reminder for the people in the back:
If the Lakers have any chance at a playoff berth in the vaunted West, they'll need Ball -- and his defense -- back soon.