On Monday night, Boston Celtics star Kyrie Irving finished with 26 points, 10 assists, three rebounds and eight steals in a 107-99 win over the Miami Heat. It was just the latest spectacular all-around performance for the point guard, who has taken his game to new heights this year after coming off of a knee procedure that knocked him out of last season’s playoffs.
That begs the question: is this Irving’s best season yet?
On the year overall, the 26-year-old is averaging 23.5 points per game while also registering career highs in assists (6.9), rebounds (4.8) and steals (1.7). In addition, Irving is shooting a career-best 50.1 percent from the floor while also making 41.3 percent of his three-point attempts and 84.6 percent of his free throws.
Those are truly fantastic numbers, but Kyrie has always been one to look good in the box score.
The biggest knocks on Irving throughout his career have been his ability to facilitate the offense and his defense. This year, though, Kyrie is doing a fine job of putting those criticisms to bed.
Let’s start with the fact that Irving owns a plus-8 net rating, good for the best mark of his career. Also, while he still is not an elite defender and likely never will be, his effort on that end of the floor has been obvious this season, as evidenced by those numbers that show that the team’s defense is basically the same whether he is on the floor or off the floor.
Irving has also already drawn nine charges this season, more than he had in his previous two seasons combined.
Of course, Irving’s environment probably has a lot to do with his defensive improvement. The Cleveland Cavaliers were not really known as defensive juggernauts during his time there, but the Celtics are always at the top of the league in defensive efficiency.
Kyrie is clearly learning from guys like Marcus Smart (which could explain the uptick in charges taken) and Al Horford, defensive aces who have not only made Irving’s job on that end of the floor easier, but have taught him how to become a better defensive player in general.
Irving has also made a habit out of making key late-game stops this season, moving his feel incredibly well to stay in front of ball-handlers and not biting on fakes.
As for his point guard skills? They have gotten better, too.
Not known as a passer in Cleveland, Irving has actually become a good distributor in Boston, demonstrating floor vision that most of us never even knew he had and an unselfishness that he was criticized for not having while with the Cavaliers.
Over his last four games, for example, Irving is averaging 11 assists a night, including an 18-assist outburst against the Toronto Raptors, a game in which he also scored 27 points and made some back-breaking buckets in a key late Celtics run that sealed the win.
What has made Irving so good this year, however, is his sense of balance. And I don’t mean balance in terms of being able to stand on his own two feet; I mean balance in him knowing when to get his teammates involved and when to take over.
That was evident on Monday evening against the Heat, when the Celtics saw a 22-point fourth-quarter lead trimmed to five before Irving checked back into the contest and put things away, reeling off six straight points and making Dion Waiters’ late efforts all for naught.
Prior to Irving’s scoring surge over the last few minutes, he was wheeling and dealing, setting up guys like Horford and Jayson Tatum for easy buckets as Boston built a huge lead over Miami in the third period.
It was more of the same against Toronto last Wednesday and then the Memphis Grizzlies two days later, when Irving erupted for 38 points, 11 assists and seven boards in a 122-116 victory.
It’s easy to get sucked into the aesthetics of Irving’s game. He is one of the smoothest scorers this game has ever seen, possessing an unrivaled craftiness with the ball, an inhuman ability to finish contested layups around the rim and the luxury of being able to get off shots from anywhere on the floor, particularly from three-point range where he has been taking the wind opponents’ sails all year long.
But it’s the little things that Kyrie is doing this year, the little nuances in his development that is turning him into a legitimate top-10 player in the league.
That sense of knowing when to distribute and when to score? That’s not something that Irving had down a couple of years ago. Giving a real defensive effort? It was always a question. Drawing charges? It’s not something he really ever did.
Irving’s game has evolved in a major way this season, and the Celtics are reaping the benefits.
Over the first couple of weeks of the season, it was obvious that Irving was not 100 percent, appearing tentative and not having his legs underneath him after having not played basketball since last March due to knee surgery.
As a result, Boston got off to a 10-10 start, as it was also dealing with Gordon Hayward’s recovery and injuries up and down the roster as a whole.
Now, though, Irving looks more comfortable than ever, and the C’s have gone 19-8 over their last 27 games and have gone 6-3 against the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers.
The better Irving gets, the more dangerous the Celtics become.
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league come playoff time.