Celtics

Exploring the return of Kyrie Irving playing hard defense

(John McCoy/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES -- If you simply looked at the numbers, there wasn’t much that was overly alarming about Kyrie Irving’s performance in the month of February. He led the team in scoring (22.3 ppg) and assists (6.8) and shot incredibly efficiently from the field (41 percent from 3). Yet as the losses piled up amid an ugly 6-7 month for the team, it was hard to ignore the dropoff on the defensive end when it came to the All-Star.

Irving arrived in Boston with an earned label of dogging it on defense at times in Cleveland. He managed to shed that label at various points to a degree in his first season in Boston (albeit inconsistently) and he was flat out terrific at points during that front in the first half of 2018-19 as his teammates struggled on the offensive end. Irving embraced the defensive challenge more after teaming up with Marcus Smart in the starting backcourt, leading the team in charges taken through the first half of the season with the kind of effort that turned a lot of heads.

“Kyrie is in the right spot a lot,” Brad Stevens said earlier this year of Irving's defense. “He’s got unbelievable instincts and he also has an unbelievable ability to recognize the biggest threat in the room.”

For much of February, though, Irving’s discipline and commitment to the defensive end waned as the rumors heated up about his future and the free agency drama looming this season. As his defense went south, Boston’s defensive performance followed suit, leading to 109.6 points allowed per 100 possessions from February 1st (aka Ask me July 1st day) until the loss against the Rockets last week. That’s six points worse than the C’s season average on the year and it was highlighted by plenty of embarrassing efforts like this by Irving on a nightly basis.

When a player is going through the motions, he's not fighting through screens or making the proper rotations. That creates a domino effect within a team's defense and was definitely a big contributor to the dropoff. Irving wasn't the only offender to "taking shortcuts" as Stevens described in Toronto, but he was most glaring one.

However, the equation has changed for this team on the defensive end on the West Coast trip this week, highlighted by another positive effort during Saturday’s 120-107 win over the Lakers. There is nothing particularly noteworthy about beating a Lakers team that is without three starters and keeping LeBron James on a minutes limit. However, going back to the start of this road trip, the Celtics are allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions, 10 points better than their average in February and four points better than their season average.

Irving has only played two of those games but he was front and center against the Lakers not only his offense (30 points on 12-of-18 FG), but with his defensive impact as well.

“He was really good tonight, and the third quarter when they made their run, he obviously steadied us,” Stevens said. “Scored in different ways – off the pass, off the drive, did his thing and stopped runs. Pushed out and gave us a little more of a cushion than we had before.”

The change in Irving’s demeanor doesn’t always come out in the box score but a look at the film shows a renewed commitment by the All-Star defensively in the wake of the positive vibes that have carried over from a long chat he had with Brad Stevens on the way out west.

Sometimes, it’s a simple possession in the halfcourt when Irving just completes multiple rotations on time as he does here. Watch him correctly help off his man to protect the rim against a rolling McGee and then rush out to a Reggie Bullock off a switch with no hesitation after Hayward covers his man in the corner. Following the correct coverages leads to a tough shot for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a stop for Boston.

Irving also made a point of sacrificing his body for the team early in the game, absorbing a charge here from Rajon Rondo in the first quarter after camping out patiently in front of the basket.