A year and a half ago, the Boston Celtics changed the course of their franchise by trading for Kyrie Irving. It seems like an obvious move now, but they took criticism at the time for how much they gave up. Celtics president Danny Ainge justified it by referring to Irving as a "special" player, arguing that having stars on the roster would make life easier for everybody else.
"We need a special player," Ainge said in an interview published on the team's official Twitter account. "We need players like Gordon [Hayward] and Kyrie and Al Horford because it allows the rest of the players to play their roles and to do what they're capable of doing. I think that when you don't have really talented players, that the other players try to do too much, it stunts their development, the team isn't as good and that's when players don't look as good."
Ainge argued that stars would allow non-stars to play within themselves and "maximize their own abilities." This is conventional wisdom -- teams need structure, players need defined roles, etc. -- but it didn't end up being relevant to last year's Boston team, which almost made the Finals despite losing Hayward on opening night and Irving with a month left in the regular season.
How relevant it will be to this year's team is unclear. Based on Marcus Morris' comments after the Celtics blew a 28-point lead against the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 9, when winning. Last month, Terry Rozier told Yahoo Sports' Vince Goodwill that they were "too talented." Over and over again, Irving has . With 24 games left in the regular season, Boston is 37-21, with the league's third-best net rating, but it does not seem to have a clear hierarchy.
"It's been a trying year for us because we basically have a bunch of young men in our locker room that feel like they're capable of doing a lot more than what they're doing, and that's OK," Irving told ESPN's Rachel Nichols. "But there's a maturity that you have to have, there's a professionalism that you have to really showcase every single day, and that's what the great ones do."
If you're down on the Celtics, then it's easy to construct a doomsday scenario: They never become more than the sum of their parts, they fail to reach the conference finals and Irving leaves in free agency, citing frustration with how they dealt with high expectations. If this happens, then the quicker-than-expected ascension of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Rozier last season, such a fantastic story last year, will be seen as having unintended, catastrophic consequences..
It might, however, be unwise to write Boston off. Despite the weird vibe around the team, it beat the Philadelphia 76ers on the road without Irving last week, and it has risen to the occasion several other times this season. Perhaps in the playoffs, when every game feels important, when every win requires extreme focus, there will be no time for anyone to worry about touches and shot attempts. Perhaps, against elite teams, the Celtics already know who will have the ball in his hands the most.
On Feb. 3, Kyrie Irving scored 30 points on 14-for-19 shooting with 11 assists in a 134-129 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder. On Jan. 26, Irving had 32 points, 10 assists and six rebounds in a 115-111 loss to the Golden State Warriors. On Jan. 16, Irving had 27 points, 18 assists and five rebounds in a 117-108 win against the Toronto Raptors. His two highest-scoring games of the season came on Christmas against the Sixers (40 points) and on Nov. 16 against the Raptors (43) points, both victories.
"Special players, they tend to get better as the game goes on and as you play against better players," Kevin Durant told reporters after the Warriors escaped Boston with a win in a game that featured 21 lead changes. "He's one of those special players."
As shaky as Boston's season has felt, there have been moments where it has looked championship-caliber. Often, this has coincided with Irving taking over. As we all try to figure out what might happen in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it is worth mentioning the Celtics' credentials: They have a star guard who can create offense out of thin air against even the league's best defenders, a star center who is a massive matchup problem, a top-five defense and all sorts of versatile, two-way players. They can still be dangerous in the postseason, as long as everybody does what's needed to win. Part of that might be as simple as deferring to Irving.
All-Stars say the weirdest, wackiest things
Every All-Star Weekend media availability is an adventure. Each player has a station, and he must sit there and answer questions that are often completely irrelevant to what is going on in Charlotte. These sessions can be up to half an hour long, and, in addition to the normal "Can you say something to your fans in [Country X]?" stuff that happens every year, last weekend there was a magician doing card tricks and a reporter asking a bunch of players to participate in a spelling bee. (They struggled with "Antetokounmpo" and "Nowitzki.") Here are my 15 favorite quotes:
- Blake Griffin on the one thing he wished people knew about him: "I love being asked the question, 'What's one thing about you that people don't know?' That's one of my favorite things. People don't know that."
- D'Angelo Russell on his favorite pizza: "To be honest, I don't even eat pizza. I don't eat it. I couldn't tell you."
- James Harden, after a reporter called him "the king of the beard swag," on how he maintains his beard: "Conditioner and shampoo, making sure it's nice and fluffy. I got a haircut yesterday, so it look real good."
- Joe Harris on his beard: "Well, it started with laziness, that's for sure. So you gotta see if you can grow it. And if you can grow it -- I've been a little lucky along the way, some people have sent me some different beard oils, beard butters. And you gotta get a good barber, make sure you're taking care of it, maintaining it."
- Kawhi Leonard on who he likes to guard: "I don't really have a favorite player to guard. I guess somebody on the bench who doesn't play. It's easier to guard them."
- Danny Green on Nikola Jokic's game: "It's weird. He's kind of like a big man octopus."
- Bradley Beal to Danny Green, who was moonlighting as a reporter for TSN: "My son's name is not Batmo. I thought about it."
- De'Aaron Fox on Fortnite: "Fortnite's weak. I don't like Fortnite. I'm usually on Call of Duty. Fortnite, that's a child's game."
- De'Aaron Fox on In-N-Out Burger: "That shit trash. I'm from Texas."
- De'Aaron Fox on his biggest fear: "I hate scary movies. When I was 6 or 7, one of my cousins had me watch "Freddy vs. Jason" when it first came out. After that, all through elementary school, I wouldn't leave doors open if it was nighttime. I would make sure I closed every door. It's not a fear for me now, but "Freddy vs. Jason" scarred me for life."
- Trae Young, who has a fear of birds, on potentially being scared of Larry Bird: "No, no, no. If he walked into a room, I'm not going to be scared of Larry Bird, for sure."
- Jayson "Taco Jay" Tatum on winning the Taco Bell Skills Challenge: "I'm going to call Taco Bell tomorrow and tell them I need a deal. I need to be on the commercial. I love tacos."
- Dirk Nowitzki on getting all his shots off in the 3-point contest: "Most people thought I wouldn't make it in a minute. So I rushed a couple because I always had that in my mind: You've got to finish, you've got to finish. I was hustling harder in between racks than I do on transition defense usually."
- Giannis Antetokounmpo on what he'll do when he retires: "After basketball, I'll be on an island. I'll call it the Greek Freak Island. There's going to be no media, nobody there. It's just going to be me and my family. I'll be laying down in my cabana -- that's how you call it, cabana? -- and I'm just going to rest for the rest of my life."
- Kyle Kuzma on if he likes talking to the media: "I do. I have no problems unless they ask dumb questions."
The Thunder are running like never before. They are third in the league in pace, in a virtual tie with the second-place Kings and up from 18th last season. This is part of why they've been fun to watch, but it is also functional. Oklahoma City has only scored 93.5 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt, per Cleaning The Glass, which ranks 18th in the league. It makes up for that with offensive rebounding and avoiding the halfcourt altogether -- only Sacramento is in transition more frequently.
This jibes with what the Thunder have been trying to do for years. When they took the Warriors to seven games in the 2016 Western Conference finals, they couldn't match their opponents' shooting, but had the edge in athleticism and physicality. That iteration of the team wasn't as fast as this one, but coach Billy Donovan wanted them to push the ball and create easy buckets whenever it was possible. He has placed more emphasis on that this season, and this kind of possession is the result:
More good news: Oklahoma City is doing this without turning the ball over much, and no team forces turnovers more frequently. The Thunder have built an identity around playing aggressively, but not recklessly. This should serve them well as they deal with the league's most difficult post-All-Star schedule.
I hate being the guy who yells about the game slowing down in the playoffs, but the big question here is whether or not their opponents will be able to stop them from running. Every team is going to try to force OKC to make plays in the halfcourt and dare its less reliable 3-point shooters to make shots. (There is some good news here, too: Since I wrote about the Thunder being dead-last in 3-point percentage in early December, they have made 38.4 percent of their 3s, which ranks fourth in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. They just don't shoot a ton of them.)
Checking in on … Jordan Clarkson
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson had the least-discussed scoring explosion in recent memory, going off for a career-high 42 points in a 148-139 triple-overtime loss against the Brooklyn Nets last Wednesday. He took 17 3s in that game and made seven of them. It was the first time a Cavalier had even scored 30 points this season.
I wish I could tell you that this was representative of some kind of breakout. Clarkson is still shooting 28.8 percent from 3-point range this month, as he had gone 8-for-35 in the five games preceding the loss to Brooklyn. He is capable of putting up big numbers, but all that's really changed from prior seasons is that he is shooting more.
Hmmm: Harden's superhuman scoring streak 'because of our situation'
In an interview with ESPN's Rachel Nichols, Houston Rockets star James Harden said his absurd scoring streak . The team needed him to shoulder a bigger offensive load than anyone thought possible, so he did it.
"The scoring streak is obviously amazing, but it's something that I just had to do because of our situation," Harden said. "We had all the injuries and guys in and out of the lineup and things like that. I think the streak just started happening, and then now it's like something to talk about. But it's not something that I'm really honestly focused on. Like, that's something I have to do in order to give us a chance to win the game."
Harden also privately told Stephen Curry that he'd rather not be playing hero ball -- at All-Star practice, Curry was recorded telling Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer about their conversation. This might seem surprising, based on the attention and accolades Harden has received, but Harden already has one MVP award. It makes sense that he'd rather do less and have a better chance of winning a title.
If Chris Paul and Clint Capela get back to their normal selves, maybe Harden can dial things back a bit down the stretch. I believe him when he says his ridiculous run was borne out of necessity -- aside from Eric Gordon, the Rockets had nobody else who could create offense, so whenever Harden gave up the ball, opposing teams would go into deny mode. He may have been dominating the ball, but he was not being selfish. In a weird way, he was actually sacrificing for the team by doing so much more than he'd normally want to.
Pretty bold, Tatum … Pretty bold, Buddy … John Collins' plane dunk will live forever … On a more serious Hawks note, I wonder if there's a smart free agent out there who sees their potential and signs with them this summer … If this surprised you, then I guess you weren't reading Haralabos Voulgaris' old blogs … Ian Eagle is an absolute legend … Luka Doncic has apparently solved the one-and-done issue ... I never believe it when people say they , but I get why they say it … Bummed we won't see Zhaire Smith with the Sixers this season … Free J.R. Smith!