How Kyrie Irving's time with LeBron James, Cavs has made him the perfect leader for these Celtics
You can't replicate championship expectations, and only Irving has played under their immense weight
BOSTON -- Not since the summer of 2007, when Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined forces with Paul Pierce in Boston, has there been this level of expectation on the Celtics, who enter the season as the clear favorite to come out of the East and a legitimate threat to win the whole damn thing -- regardless of who comes out of the West.
Yes, they can match up with the Warriors.
With that will come a whole new level of scrutiny. No longer will this team get the benefit of the doubt it got last season when Gordon Hayward went down for the year in the first five minutes of opening night. From that point on, anything the Celtics accomplished last season felt like a pleasant surprise. By the time they made it all the way to the conference finals without Hayward or Kyrie Irving, they were playing with handfuls of house money. Absolutely nothing to lose. As Irving said before practice on Tuesday, the stakes have been raised this year. The Celtics "are not that team anymore."
Irving, of course, knows how this goes. He's the only Celtic who's ever faced this kind of pressure to win at the highest level. For his last three years in Cleveland, it was championship or bust. On those teams, he had the fortune of playing alongside LeBron James, who shouldered pretty much all the leadership responsibility -- allowing Irving to just do his thing. Now, Irving wants to provide that same luxury for Jayson Tatum, for Jaylen Brown, for all the younger Celtics. Even for Hayward and Al Horford, both of whom have played in plenty of big games, but never as big as the ones Boston expects to be playing in this season.
That doesn't mean a lot isn't being asked of everyone else. Of course it is. The Celtics are ready to win now, which means Tatum and Brown have to expedite their learning curve. At the very least, they can't regress from the unexpectedly high bar they established last season, when the silver lining of Hayward's injury was all the extra experience it afforded the youngsters. Irving remembers when he was the youngster during his early days in Cleveland -- when, in his words, he only knew how to roll the ball out and play. Just a guy with a bunch of talent and no real experience. A guy who "wasn't ready." But then LeBron came back. The stakes got raised. And so began Irving's championship basketball baptism by fire.
"Being around [Le]Bron and Mike Miller and James Jones and all the other veterans, at that time was something that I needed," Irving said. "I had to learn a lot about the game of basketball. I was [in my fourth year], I'd just signed a $90 million contract, I was thirsty for everything, and for the most part, to that point I had been taught just roll out the ball and go play. That was the first time I actually had to watch film, and get ready for the playoffs, and learn what it's like to be the one [being] hunted.
"And that's a change we're going to see [in Boston]. We're asking a lot of our players to be basketball savants, not just basketball players who can go out there with nothing to lose, nothing to worry about. We have to be a lot smarter, a lot more diligent, a lot more communicative. Our effort has to surpass other teams ... It takes a lot more thinking, a lot more film work and talking about what we want as a group. That's going to distinguish us."
One of the pitfalls Irving is determined to avoid is the temptation Boston's myriad gifted scorers might feel to go on their own. The Celtics have a bevy of offensive talent, and as a team that will employ a lot of like-sized lineups, they are ripe for defensive switches, which in turn can lead a less disciplined team to abandon their ball and player movement and simply go one-on-one. Kyrie, who is perhaps the best one-on-one player on the planet, refuses to let that happen. Even if the Celtics can score that way -- and surely they can -- that's win-the-battle-but-lose-the-war basketball.
"Don't get lazy," is Irving's message. "Don't concede to what the defense is giving you. Obviously they want us to [play] one-on-one. You can live with those possessions in an NBA game. Guys going one-on-one, it becomes stagnant, the game doesn't become fun, guys are just running back on defense [time after time], egos get involved because nobody's touching [the ball]. You have to find that balance, but you cannot be lazy just allowing the defense to switch out of convenience. It can't happen. I won't allow it to happen. If a point guard switches off me to JT [Tatum], we better be looking in that post every play down. We have too much talent on our perimeter to just stand around and dribble hand off to one another.
"I was talking to JT about this, as well as JB [Brown]," Irving said. "You know, JT wasn't expected to score 18 [a game] last year. JB wasn't expected to take 12 shots [a game] last year. Gordon was supposed to be our second scorer. Now you think about that whole triangle of guys. Gordon's coming back trying to prove himself, JT is trying to be at that next level, JB is trying to be at that next level, so they all want to do everything. At the end of the day, we can't all do everything, including myself.
"I'm confident I can go out and be efficient whether I have the ball or not. Making [my teammates'] jobs easier and a lot more fun is part of my job. It's an art. Being able to make reads on the fly. It's a step-by-step process, it's going to take time."
Irving says Stevens -- who has been vocally displeased with the Celtics' preseason efforts, reminding his team that "nobody wins on talent alone" in the NBA -- is letting the Celtics figure these things out on their own. Irving appreciates that. As the point guard, as a leader, he's earned the responsibility to run his ship. Both Irving and Stevens noted that the Celtics' intensity and focus has picked up behind closed doors. One of the luxuries of having so much talent is the competition it creates in practice.
"If you're [Tatum or Brown or Hayward], and you're going at one of the best wings in the league every single day, it should only help you. It's good to see them go at it. It's a competition among them, obviously. You want to see them go at each other in practice and then make that translation into the game."
That transition begins next Tuesday:, one of the teams that intends to spoil Boston's assumed Eastern supremacy. Irving says he'll be approaching these next few days "like a true veteran," getting his mind and body right to the road ahead. A road that, unlike any of his teammates, he's been down before.
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