BOSTON — So much has changed for Kyrie Irving, jerseys and cities, coaches and teammates, roles and responsibilities but this—this—felt so familiar. The charged atmosphere, the roar of the home crowd, a meaningful game and his ability to control it. The playoffs, these playoffs, are what Irving lives for.
It was Boston 99, Indiana 91 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference’s 4-5 matchup. It was 37 points, seven assists and six rebounds for Irving, whose brilliance kept Boston within shouting distant of a relentless Pacers team through three quarters and whose cold bloodedness closed them out.
Irving’s teammates slashed an 11-point Pacers lead to four with Irving on the bench for the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. From there, Irving took over. A 27-footer cut Indiana’s lead to one. A 25-footer gave Boston a two-point lead. A 10-foot pullup extended the lead to four. Given space, Irving launched threes; pressured, he blew by the Pacers vaunted defense.
Asked what Boston did late to close the game, Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said: “They put the ball in Kyrie’s hands.”
In so many ways this has been a challenging season for Irving, perhaps the most difficult of his career. His body has been healthy, his game sharp, yet the burden of leadership has weighed on him, the constant chatter about his future a regular source of irritation. So many times Irving declared that he couldn’t wait to get through the regular season, to get to the playoffs, to get back to playing consequential games again. After two knee surgeries ended his chance to play in the last postseason, Irving has been aching to be a part of this one.
Here he is, in the playoffs, facing down an opponent that won’t go away. For three quarters, Indiana played as well as a Victor Oladipo-less Pacers team could play. They shot a high percentage (50%). They kept the turnovers in single digits. They were unselfish. They entered the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead.
But Indiana lacks proven firepower, relying on streaky shooters (Tyreke Evans, who submitted 13 points in Game 2, is chief among them) to support Bojan Bogdanovic, who has stepped up in Oladipo’s absence. And they lack a closer, evidenced by a disastrous, three-play sequence in the final minute headlined by two turnovers on the offensive end and a foul on a Jayson Tatum dunk on the defensive end that sealed the loss.
Frustrated, Pacers coach Nate McMillan said: “We got to finish. We got to do a better job of finishing games and situations like that.”
Boston showcased some of its scoring talent in Game 2, with Tatum posting 26 points—including 10, along with a nifty late-game assist to Gordon Hayward, in the fourth quarter—and Hayward added 13. Al Horford, a game-time decision with flu-like symptoms coming into this one, had four, but both Horford’s buckets came early in the fourth quarter, with Irving on the bench and Boston beginning to make its run.
The Pacers may be able to match Boston’s depth, but they have no counter to Irving. Irving had 28 points through three quarters, admitting afterwards he was doing whatever he could to keep Boston in it. With Indiana’s defense keying on him, Irving took to the three-point line, knocking down six of his 10 three-point attempts.
“Kyrie was incredible,” Brad Stevens said. “When he gets on a run like that, he’s going to draw even more attention than he already draws—which is as much as anybody draws in the league. In the last couple of minutes, he made the right play.”
Added Jaylen Brown, “Just sit back and watch.”
In the postgame interview room, Irving sounded unimpressed. “I think we did enough to win,” Irving said. He praised his teammates for cutting into the Pacers lead early in the fourth quarter. He praised his backup, Terry Rozier, for the dogged effort he gave in the fourth quarter. He reminded reporters that it was the little things, not gaudy numbers, that would be the difference in these playoffs.
“That’s what is going to get you wins,” Irving said. “It’s not so much about the talent, not so much about always executing the right way. It’s about doing the little things when [they] are needed in the game.”
Boston isn’t buying any hype, not two games in against a team they are favored to send home. “We have to stay locked in,” Irving said. But what Celtics brass hoped would happen—that a season’s worth of in-fighting, minutes envy, role jealousy would be washed away when it came time to play games that count—seems to be happening. Boston’s closing lineup on Wednesday was Irving, Horford, Tatum, Hayward and Jaylen Brown, the lineup that started the season and the one the team hoped would eventually come together. It’s led by Irving, still one of the best closers in the game.
So much has been made about Irving’s connection with Boston, if it will be enough to keep him around for a few more years. As Irving went to the free throw line late in the game, MVP chants poured down from the rafters; when Tatum slipped the pass to Hayward to clinch it, Irving pumped his fist and roared along with the crowd.
“It felt good to be here in this position, playing in this arena,” Irving said. "It’s just been a long journey having those two knee surgeries and watching the team last year. And finally getting a chance to lace ‘em up for the Boston Celtics in the NBA playoffs, there’s nothing like it.”
On this night, Irving and Boston were completely in sync.