BOSTON — As the Boston Celtics were trying to fend off one final charge from the Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s rivalry game at TD Garden, a booming voice could be heard crystal clear over the game broadcast.
“Stop standing around and watching Kyrie!” the voice screamed.
It seems a good bet it was the voice of Celtics coach Brad Stevens. After a dazzling first quarter filled with slick moves, the shorthanded Celtics got a bit stagnant, watched a 21-point evaporate and spent much of the night looking at Irving to bail out a clunky offense.
And who, besides Stevens, could really blame them for being transfixed by Irving?
Boston’s slick-dribbling point guard had a few sequences of utter ridiculousness Wednesday, seemingly dribbling through the entire Lakers team picture for a layup in the first quarter. Irving finished with 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting with six rebounds and five assists over 33 minutes as Boston ultimately gritted out a 107-96 triumph.
“I think that some of the plays that we were making earlier, it was unbelievable,” Irving said. But he acknowledged that Boston got a little too fancy at times after that. “Ten million dollar move with a five-cent finish at times, and it caught up with us.”
Still, there was one sequence in the first quarter in which Irving showed why he’s regarded as maybe the best ballhandling guard in the league. It started with a hard push by Marcus Morris up the right side of the floor following a Lakers turnover. Irving caught the ball near the midcourt stripe and immediately surveyed the defenders in front of him.
Dribbling hard across the 3-point stripe, he charged at two Lakers defenders, including Lonzo Ball. Irving effortlessly went behind his back with his dribble three times, and, when Brandon Ingram swiped at the ball, Irving seemed to briefly lose control and the ball trickled toward the free throw line.
Unfazed, Irving charged at the ball and managed to punch it away as Brook Lopez reached down to corral it. Irving regained control above the 3-point arc on the left side of the floor, and Ball rushed over to help Lopez with hopes of preventing another Irving drive attempt. Irving crossed over to his right hand, then went back quick to his left as Lopez stumbled into Ball. Irving took one hard dribble to his left, then Eurostepped past Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, before finishing a left-hand layup off the glass.
Boston’s bench lost its collective mind watching Irving turn what seemed like a surefire turnover into a layup.
“The way he has the ball on a string is just, it’s unbelievable,” said backup point guard Shane Larkin, one of the most excited players on Boston’s bench after the sequence. “It’s the best I’ve ever seen. Like, it looks like he’s losing it, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s literally going horizontally across the court and he’s tapping [the ball] so guys can’t get it. Then when he finally has that opening, he gets back in control, and he makes another over and another move and he’s at the basket laying it up.
“It’s nothing I’ve seen before, and it’s something that you can’t really teach. You can go out there and try to imitate him as much as you want to, it’s just something that’s now becomes natural for him. I’ve played with some good guards but never anybody who has it on a string like that.”
Larkin said he knows how good Irving can be from trying to defend him in past seasons. He has ultimately decided that he’ll never bite on one of Irving’s moves but admits it’s just as easy for Irving to blow right past a defender. There’s a reason Irving is nicknamed the Ankletaker.
As mesmerizing as Irving was — and he had another dancing sequence in the third quarter that ended with a beautiful drop-off pass to Aron Baynes for an and-one layup — the Celtics had to really grind at the end of Wednesday’s game.
Baynes stepped up big and carried the Celtics’ offense at times by putting on his hard hat in the post. Baynes tied his career high with 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting. But he heaped a lot of praise on Irving for the way he opened things up for his teammates.
“That’s what [Irving] does,” Baynes said. “He’s such a great creator offensively, and he draws so much attention that I just try to set him a screen and give him as much space as I can to do what he does. The exciting thing about it is, we can get so much better with that as well. Myself and him together working, I know there’s a lot of improvement. He just draws so much attention from the defense that he gets us so wide open and makes our job that much easier.”
The Celtics, winners of 10 straight, must now battle through these injuries in hopes of keeping their momentum going.
“We’re just trying to do our best to stay healthy, man. That’s it,” Irving said. “Hopefully everything’s all right with Jayson, hope everything is all right with Al. We pick up the pieces and keep on trucking. That’s the best way I know how.”
But Wednesday was a friendly reminder that, no matter what that first-quarter sequence suggests, Irving can’t do this alone.