It’s not necessarily surprising Kyrie Irving and the Celtics were bottled in Game 2 against the Bucks following a resounding 112-90 victory in Game 1. Boston’s struggles on Tuesday mirrored its cycle through much of the regular season. The Celtics will look like Finals favorites in the East one night, then fall to a conference cellar dweller the next. They tallied five losing streaks of three-plus games in the regular season, including a trio of losing streaks in the season’s final three months. A dose of consistency over the next two games could give the Celtics a commanding 3–1 series lead, but don’t assume Boston will shed its Jekyll and Hyde tendencies so easily.
Irving is largely culpable for the variance in Boston’s performance. Such is the burden of a high-usage point guard, Irving steers the Celtics to a degree unmatched by perhaps any player left in the postseason outside of James Harden. A few early buckets from Irving unlocks Boston’s entire attack, especially when they come in the paint. Irving’s sheer wizardry with the ball invites exaggerated help. There’s little choice but to pack the paint and pray for blown threes. Six of Al Horford’s eight made field goals in Game 1 came directly via an Irving assist. Jaylen Brown has been fed a steady diet of corner threes via Irving this season. Ditto for Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum, even as the latter continues to settle for long twos. Irving’s penetration fuels Boston in the half court.
Boston would be well served to run the Irving-Horford two-man game on repeat. The Celtics were an impressive plus-8.9 points per 100 possessions when Horford and Irving shared the floor in the regular season. They’re plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with the duo in the playoffs. Milwaukee doesn’t have the personnel to contain them. There’s only one Giannis. Horford will glide right past Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic. We might as well pull out the Yakety Sax music if Irving isolates Splash Mountain.
Horford could stand to be more aggressive on the offensive end. Milwaukee is sagging off his jumper to an alarming degree, leaving Horford’s corner jumpers completely uncontested. The five-time All-Star shot 36% from three in 2018-19 and 52.3% from 16 to 22 feet. He should take a note from Morris—one of the league’s preeminent black holes—and let it fly, eschewing his unselfish tendencies.
Milwaukee made significant adjustments following its Game 1 shellacking. It began to trap Irving on a sizeable chunk or pick-and-rolls, daring the diminutive point guard to make a difficult pass in traffic. Irving is certainly equipped to make the correct play, but navigating through the trees is far more difficult than dancing past a big on an island. Horford is a suitable outlet, yet he’s still a bit cautious rolling downhill in the 4-on-3. He’s no Draymond Green in that respect. Irving and Horford combined for eight of Boston’s 13 turnovers in Game 2. It was arguably the worst game of Irving’s career in Boston.
We should see an energized Irving in Game 3. He has no shortage of clutch postseason performances, including a 37-point explosion in Game 2 against the Pacers on April 17. After nailing one of the greatest shots in Finals history, Irving won’t be phased by an Eastern Conference semifinal. Irving and Stevens will counter Milwaukee’s trapping. Tatum and Brown would be worthy pick-and-roll partners, alleviating some of the Bucks’ length while providing a more athletic playmaker off the roll. Budenholzer made a necessary switch in Game 2; Stevens and Irving will need to do the same on Friday.
The last month has been tranquil for Irving after more than a dose of early-season turmoil. He’s proven his playoff mettle through three trips to the NBA Finals, noting on Wednesday, “this is what I signed up for.” The moment won’t bother Irving, but the Bucks still can. A pivotal Game 3 awaits, with the Celtics' hopes hanging on the performance of Uncle Drew. We'll soon see whether Irving rises to the occasion.