Celtics

The perfect mix: How an evolving Kyrie took over crunch time against Raptors

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Celtics scored 25 points in the final six minutes of Wednesday’s 117-108 win over the Toronto Raptors and Kyrie Irving was responsible for every single one of those points (via scoring or assisting). The All-Star went toe-to-toe in a tie game (94-94 with six minutes left) with one of the best players in the game in what was likely a sneak preview of the Eastern Conference playoffs matchup, and bested Kawhi Leonard on the second straight occasion (C's won in OT back in November).

Irving ultimately finished with 27 points and a career-high 18 assists in a performance that showed his growth, both on and off the floor. The headlines nationally after this one will be focused on a maturing Irving off the floor after he explained postgame that he called LeBron James to apologize for being a knucklehead in Cleveland, while also seeking out advice for the impressionable youngsters on how struggling squad. Yet, the growth Irving is showing on the floor, particularly with his passing vision is what should give some Celtics fans hope in the midst of an underwhelming season so far in addition to his mea culpa on the leadership front.

“Going forward, I want to test these young guys, but I can’t be a bully like that,” Irving said of his critical comments in Orlando on Saturday. “I want to get the best out of them, but I can’t do it personally like that. That was a learning experience for me of being in this position of really realizing the magnitude of my voice and what I really mean to these guys.”

The Celtics made a gamble in the summer of 2017 when they acquired Irving from the Cavaliers. The trade package to acquire the All-Star clearly looks like a steal now with the benefit of hindsight, but the front office was making a big bet on the fact that there was plenty of untapped potential in Irving, particularly from a passing standpoint. The Cavs' offense was a powerhouse but it was largely LeBron James who ran the show in a freelance system, which turned Irving into a ball dominant presence at times, who looked to get his first and foremost, especially during crunch time.

We saw a lot of this ball dominant Irving last year in green and to be honest, this group needed it on most nights in crunch time. Still, on a team coached by Brad Stevens that has a system always looking for the best shots, there is a fine line between taking over crunch times and still keeping an eye out for your teammates in good spots. Everyone knew Irving was a cold-blooded scorer, but the Celtics brass believed he could be more than that.

“You know what? When he was – he’s always been a special playmaker,” Stevens said. “He’s always been able to play with the ball and make plays for himself and others. He has that gift since I’ve seen him at under-18 tryouts at USA Basketball. That’s always been something he could do. He did it more than people talked about in Cleveland and, you know, he’s a threat to make the right shot. Obviously draws a lot of attention and he usually can make the right read off of that. He’s a great passer, with great touch on his passes.”

While Irving has shown flashes of that potential at times in his career, he has never done it to this level for a full season. He is now the 15th-best assist rate in the NBA, putting him ahead of pass-first point guards like Ricky Rubio and Mike Conley. When he shows a willingness to score and defer in crunch time, it leaves elite defenses with no answers. That’s something we saw firsthand with the Raptors on Wednesday night.

Let’s examine how Irving walked that line perfectly in one of his best crunch time performances in a Celtics uniform.

SCORING (10 points)