Kyrie Irving's Fast Start Paces Boston's Streak
It appears that the marriage of Kyrie Irving and Brad Stevens was made in heaven. Or maybe at the old Boston Garden, which many Celtics fans consider to be heaven.
As of this writing, Boston is riding a nine-game win streak, during which time the new Celtics alpha dog has boosted his field goal percentage by 12.7 percentage points (48.4% from the floor) and raised his points per game to 22.9 while lowering his shot output to 17.9 a night.
Already adjusting to a new role and a new system, the former Cleveland Cavalier had to readapt on the fly with the loss of Gordon Hayward. Through the first two games of the season -- both Celtics losses -- Irving put up 19.5 points and 6.5 assists to go along with 3 steals. Not bad, but his a 35.7% shooting from the field (on 21 shots per game) wasn't what you'd want from your primary scorer.
The Celtics under Brad Stevens have been known for their ball and player movement. They ranked second in the entire league last year in passes made per game at 325.3, per NBA.com. Part of the excitement of Irving joining the Celtics was getting to see the creative ways he'd race around the half court to get open.
Through the first 11 games, we have quite a few examples of just how Stevens gets Irving in advantageous positions on the floor. Here, the coach had Irving initiate the offense by giving the ball to Al Horford and receiving it back on a quick handoff. A simple tactic already puts the defender on Irving's back as he's turning the corner, leaving the San Antonio Spurs in a disadvantage with the ball handler in the heart of their defense.
A whopping 12.5% of Irving's possessions come as result of a handoff. He's scoring an impressive 1.10 points per possession (80th percentile) even though he has the fourth-most handoff possessions per game.
The Celtics again use Horford to initiate offense but this time add a little wrinkle to the handoff. Marcus Smart screens Irving's man to create some space for him to then run off of Horford's makeshift screen. With the defender already on Irving's back, there's nothing the defense can do with Horford also rolling to the rim.
Pick your poison.
During the 9-0 stretch, Irving has a true shooting percentage of 58.5%. If that's not impressive enough, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 22 points per 100 possessions while scoring a jaw-dropping 118 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Sure, he's averaging one-tenth of an assist less per game this year (5.7) than last year (5.8). But his assist percentage has risen three full percentage points (29.7% to 32.7%). It is obvious just watching him this season that he's taken pride in getting those around involved and making the game easier for teammates.
Here Irving -- coming off of a dribble handoff from Daniel Theis -- has the defense on his back. Instead of settling for a very makable floater, he hesitates just a bit to both make the defender commit to him and also to allow Theis time to roll closer to the rim where he can receive the pass and go right up instead of having to put the ball on the floor, risking a turnover.
The below play started in familiar territory for Irving (on the wing, just dribbling). But after an unfair through-the-legs cross to a ridiculous on-a-dime spin, Irving completely absorbs the defense and makes a sensational pass from the baseline to a wide open Horford at the top of the key. It may seem like a routine pass from a generational talent, but its not. It took vision and the actual ability to know the right moment to kick to an open shooter.
Irving is opening the game up tremendously for Horford as well. Irving and Horford are sharing the court 28.2 minutes per game. During that time, Horford is hitting 44.1% of his threes taking 3.1 with Irving on the court with him. The above clips show they have already built a nice two-man game chemistry in only 11 games.
Second-year wing Jaylen Brown is also reaping the benefits of sharing the floor with Irving. Irving's slicing-and-dicing sucks in defenders. As a result, Brown is shooting 42.9% from downtown (on 3.8 attempts).
The Irving/Horford/Brown combo has played 252 minutes together thus far. Of all the three-man lineups to log at least 200 minutes together, their net rating of 16.4 is the fourth-highest in the NBA -- and the highest non-Warriors lineup.
Irving has taken his game to another level. Yes, the scoring brilliance is still there, shining as bright as ever. But Brad Stevens is maximizing Irving's immense talent. Putting him in new, innovative ways to score and create for others is exciting to see so early in the season.
But that's what happens when a supremely talented superstar pairs up with a brilliant basketball mind.