The Celtics are an ensemble drama when they’re working, and especially when they aren’t. They’re coached and assembled to run a multi-headed attack, with threats at every position and defenders who can guard whoever’s in front of them. All that may be true, and many Celtics can step into a starring role for a quarter or a game, but don’t get it twisted: Kyrie Irving is the show in Boston.
Or in Milwaukee, as it happens. Irving and the Celtics waxed the No. 1 seed Bucks on Sunday afternoon, 112-90, in a game in which the Celtics blew out the Bucks twice. First early, when the Celts went up big before taking a two-point lead into halftime, and again for the better part of the second half.
The Bucks are without Malcolm Brogdon, the team’s starting point guard and steadying force, for at least one more game, and will need to solve the leaks on at least one end of the floor — either finding an answer for what to do when Giannis Antetokounmpo is swarmed by Celtic defenders, or perhaps even putting a body on a few or possibly all of the Celtics’ dangerous winds.
Irving was right in the middle of it, pairing with center Al Horford on unguardable pick-and-rolls, finding cutters attacking the rim, and lofting fadeaway jumpers that cleared the rafters before finding the bottom of the net. He finished with 26 points, 11 assists and 7 rebounds, and a game-high +20 on/off differential. He was unguardable without ever truly taking over the game.
Irving is at the heart of the modern conundrum facing NBA stars. One school of thought demands stars be Stars, that they amass gaudy statistics and take over games down the stretch. This group, colloquially known as the “buckets” camp, understands that NBA defenses tighten up on the most important plays, and plays that may get a good shot in the first quarter (or in the regular season) may be blocked by Brook Lopez’s armpit in the playoffs. The Buckets crowd requires its stars to meet the moment, to be a hero. Kyrie can do that. Ask Steph Curry about Game 7 if you doubt it.
The other school understands all this, but demands stars fit a system. Meeting the moment is fine if the moment calls for it, but there are a lot of other plays in a game, and there is no need for heroics if you’re up 15 thanks to a well-executed game plan — or down 25 after too heavy a helping of Hero Ball. A star who stops the ball and allows the defense to key on him — as Irving has been at times in his career — is a star who isn’t built to win in the modern NBA. This is settled science in NBA front offices. Ask Carmelo Anthony why he’s not on a playoff roster if you doubt it.
Both schools are correct, in their way, and both find a way to make an outcast of Irving. Despite being one of the most magical finishers and shot-makers of his generation, of all-time, Irving is a point guard not named Curry. He shoots a fantastic percentage, but Curry wrecked the curve. He makes shots in traffic as well as anyone, but gives up somewhere between five and eight inches and a few dozen pounds to wings like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Antetokounmpo, the presumptive MVP and Irving’s counterpart on the marquee in this series.
On the other hand, Irving can at times throw up prayers and take over the offense when he doesn’t have it going. It happens less often than his critics suppose, and he pulls it off more often than they remember, but it’s a thing that happens and it isn’t always for the best. He does much more than that, too. He runs semi-transition offense, before the defense sets, as well as anyone in the league, and plays off of Horford, himself a genius spatial player, exactly the way the high school basketball coaches on Twitter would teach it. He finds players on the break, and runs a damn good pick-and-roll. He’s part of the system, and the system is designed on the premise that, from time to time, Irving will have to pull the system’s ass out of the fire.
It could be that both camps are right about the Irving, whose trollish persona makes him an easy target regardless of your hoops religion. Championships tend to be won by teams whose best players are bigger and taller than Irving (or are Steph Curry), and the ones taken home by ensemble casts — the 2004 Pistons, the 2014 Spurs — are won by teams in perfect synchronicity.
Then again, it could be we’re seeing yet another tectonic shift in the NBA’s ground rules. Dame Lillard is blazing through the playoffs at about Irving’s size and about Irving’s shot selection. Curry may yet win a Finals MVP with these Warriors. The rules for what works in the playoffs and what doesn’t are changing, largely because the basic rules of the game are being attacked from new and more extreme angles. The Celtics can leverage nearly all of the new angles, especially with Kyrie at the point of attack.