“.. So, I’ve learned a lot and I will continue to, and I couldn’t be more proud of that guy. He left is all out there on the floor, and to average a triple double in the freaking Finals, man, add that to the LeBron James long list that everyone keeps forgetting.”
Kyrie Irving gave the quote above in the post-game conference of the NBA Finals after a sound Game 5 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. This acknowledgement and respect given from one superstar to the next showed how far the dynamic duo had come in a short span of time. Beginning with the issues of meshing together back when James first came back to Cleveland in 2014, to the team winning the championship in 2016 the journey of the Cavaliers has been a bumpy road. Still, at the time of the recent finals defeat, it looked like the team (Irving included) would learn from this experience and get themselves ready for another trip to the Finals as James had been doing every year since his first year with Miami in 2011. But oh man, look how many things have changed in the past six months since the summer started.
Even though no one wants to question the proven Cavaliers and will assume that they will make it out of the East yet again, Boston has proven more than adversary in the early part of the season. They currently hold the best record in the league at 10-2 and hold the stingiest defense in the league holding opponents to 94.8 PPG with the addition of the second highest point differential at +9.2 (behind the Warriors). They became the first team to win 10 straight after dropping their first two to start the season, which is more attributed to the shock of adjusting the offence and defense after losing a vital piece in Hayward. Fast forward to the off season to where Irving clearly showed he wanted out as the superstar requested a trade, which resulted in him being shipped to a championship hungry Celtics squad. Irving showed his distaste for playing second fiddle to an all-time great in James, leaving his mentoring as soon as he could after the recent finals. “I don’t have any advice for him now,” James said bluntly. “I don’t have any advice for him or any people that are on any other team. We’re trying to win a championship. You’re either with us or against us.” This quote by James at media day made it clear that Irving was now an enemy in his eyes as the bond they forged over the previous three years had been shattered in just a couple of months.
This incredible start is after their second best player Gordon Hayward suffered a season ending leg injury. Following two losses to start the season the Boston Celtics won 10 straight and have beaten quality opponents in the process. The Oklahoma City Thunder, Milwaukee Bucks and San Antonio Spurs (albeit without Kawhi Leonard) have all fallen victim to Irving and co. thanks to unselfish play, extraordinary coaching and a happy superstar.
But another important factor is that Irving is happy. As Chris Broussard recently reported on the Undisputed show that Irving is “as happy as a clam… because he’s able to play the way he wants too”. The days of Irving being second fiddle on a championship contender, and behind James’ shadow are gone. He is handling the ball more than the previous three seasons in Cleveland and is showing more commitment on the defensive side of the court as he is currently seventh in the league in defensive win shares at 0.068. But adding on to this, Irving is finally shutting up critics who said he couldn’t win by himself, he is solidifying himself as a player who can lead a team to wins which was always one remark he got due to his early years without James. Irving is a player who can lead a team to victory and the Celtics are basking in his glory in the early weeks of the season.
It seems these days the only thing stopping the Celtics would be themselves. Al Horford suffered a concussion during the game with Atlanta Hawks (Nov. 6) and Jayson Tatum sprained his ankle in their match against the Los Angeles Lakers (Nov. 8). This coupled with the already injured Hayward out for the season shows that the Celtics are going to need to rely more on their superstar through these times and it looks like he is up for the challenge.
People thought that the mega deal that happened this summer destroyed Boston’s depth and what made them successful the season before. However, that does not seem to be the case as up and coming players such as Jaylen Brown, rookie Tatum and Terry Rozier have stepped up to the plate in the absence of veterans Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder to fill the void they left and continue being the defensive powerhouse that they are.
Even though it is still early on in the season, Boston has proven itself more than worthy enough to challenge and perhaps dethrone Cleveland, and more importantly the King himself these upcoming playoffs. They have a great coach in Brad Stevens, supporting group, defence and a bonafidesuperstar which makes up the tools for a championship contender. As for now, the Celtics have put the world on notice that it is ready to take the next step and cement themselves as the team to beat in the future.