They’ve needed a little bit more time to get up to speed over the past few games. But the Boston Celtics just won’t stop rolling.
For the third straight game, and the fourth time in 10 days, the NBA’s hottest team has found itself in a double-digit hole. And for the third straight game, and the fourth time in 10 days, the Celtics rose from the grave they’d dug themselves, ripping off a 22-9 run to erase a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit, force overtime and eventually knock off the Dallas Mavericks, 110-102, behind the increasingly popular late-game combination of choke-out defense and close-out brilliance from star point guard Kyrie Irving.
After the Celtics fell down by double figures early to the Charlotte Hornets, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks before walking them down, they switched things up by coming out hot, opening up a 12-point lead after 12 minutes thanks to scorching shooting from Irving (18 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the first quarter) and shooting guard Jaylen Brown (12 points on 5-for-6 shooting). The league-worst Mavericks surprised the team with the NBA’s best record, though, bouncing back from a 15-point first-half deficit to storm the C’s in the second and third quarters behind 25 points from Harrison Barnes and hot long-range shooting by vets Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea.
The Mavs kept the pressure on early in the fourth quarter, with a reserve-heavy lineup led by point guards Barea and Yogi Ferrell pushing the lead to 13 with 7:47 to go, and making you wonder whether — after a literal month without losing, in the middle of a three-game road trip after a big statement win over the defending champion Warriors — this would be the night the Celtics couldn’t muster the juice to come back late.
This is where it’s nice to have young legs.
Professional chaos agent Marcus Smart drove, drew traffic and kicked out to Brown for a 3 to get it back to 10. A couple of minutes later, Celtics bigs Al Horford and Marcus Morris shut down a Barnes drive, forcing a turnover that Smart corralled and turned into a fast break, finished with a lob for an alley-oop dunk by rookie Jayson Tatum to get the Celtics within three, 89-86, with four minutes to go.
The Celtics just kept charging, forcing turnovers, limiting the Mavericks to one shot, usually closely contested and low-percentage, and hustling their collective backsides off to try to make up the gap. And that’s when things got really weird, thanks largely to — who else? — Marcus Smart:
— BBALLiN (@BBALLiNcenter) November 21, 2017
Thanks to Smart’s hustling saves and 26-foot bomb — taken after opening the game 2-or-13 from the floor and 1-for-9 from 3-point range, natch — and Irving coming away with a steal after being forced to defend Dirk Nowitzki in the post, the Celtics had a chance to tie the game. Irving’s lob for Tatum didn’t go exactly as planned, but it still found its way through the net, knotting the score at 96 with 1:01 to go. Neither team could come up with a basket on its final possessions, with Irving missing a 3 off a sideline out-of-bounds play and Horford missing his tip-in try, and Barnes coming up empty on an isolation jumper over the outstretched arms of the rookie Tatum.
The game headed to overtime … and man, did Kyrie have it on a string once it got there.
— Binge Sports (@BingeSports) November 21, 2017
In one sense, the Celtics won this game because their NBA-leading defense put the Mavs in a vise grip for nearly 13 minutes, holding Dallas to 5-for-20 shooting with five turnovers from the 7:47 mark of the fourth quarter on. In another, though, they won it because their point guard was freaking unstoppable at exactly the time they needed him to be.
Irving made all four of his field goals in the extra session, outscoring the Mavericks by himself in OT, 10-6. He made a pair of freebies with 18 seconds left to finish off his most explosive and efficient offensive game as a Celtic — a season-high 47 points on scorching 16-for-22 shooting, a 5-for-7 mark from downtown, and 10-for-11 at the free-throw line, along with six assists, three rebounds, a steal and just three turnovers in 39 minutes of downright remarkable work.
Irving made his first 10 shots on Monday; he has now scored 77 points on 44 shots over the past two games. I think he’s gotten used to the mask, you guys.
He’s the first Celtic to score 45 or more on 70-plus percent or better since Larry Bird did it 28 years ago. According to Basketball-Refeference.com’s database, he’s the seventh player in the last 54 years to produce multiple games of 45 or more points on 22 or fewer shot attempts, and man, is it a fun list: Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, peak Gilbert Arenas, Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade, never-forget-how-good-a-scorer-he-was Kevin Martin, and present-day James Harden (who picked up his fourth such game just last week, hot on the heels of Joel Embiid having his first).
After struggling with the consistency on his shot earlier in the season, Irving has now put together back-to-back scorching performances that have lifted his season numbers (22.5 points on 47/38/89 shooting, 5.3 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals per game) back in line with his career averages, despite playing about 2.5 fewer minutes per game than his career mark (and 3.5 fewer than he saw last year in Cleveland). He kept his frankly unbelievable numbers in tight situations going, too:
Final 12:47: Kyrie Irving 17 points on 6-8 FG, Dallas Mavericks 15 points on 5-20 FG
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) November 21, 2017
Irving has scored 65 points in 38 minutes of “clutch” play — when the game’s within five points, one way or the other, in the final five minutes or OT — this season, far and away the best clutch scoring rate of any player in the league, according to NBA.com’s stats. He’s an obscene 24-for-39 from the field (61.5 percent) in those close-and-late situations, with the bulk of his damage coming inside the paint and directly at the front of the rim, thanks to his ability to sidestep and teleport through defenders tasked with hemming him up at the perimeter. He has drawn 11 fouls leading to 16 free throws (making 13), and has dished 10 assists without a turnover in “clutch” time.
It’s a little too early to start updating those “King in the Fourth” Photoshops, but it’s fair to say the Celtics haven’t yet experienced a late-game drop-off with Irving at the controls. On the contrary: no team’s got a better record in games featuring “clutch” minutes than Boston’s 11-2 mark, and while last year’s Celtics outscored opponents by a very strong 14.9 points per 100 “clutch” possessions, this year’s model has nearly doubled that net rating so far.
While Irving’s overall efficiency hadn’t quite been up to snuff before these past two games, his improved effort level on the defensive end and his killer performance in the clutch have played a big role in the Celtics getting off to such a dynamite start to the season. Then you see performances like the one he turned in on Monday, where it doesn’t seem like there’s a single thing a defender can do to stop him, and you’re reminded why Danny Ainge decided to take the gigantic risk of giving two starters and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers so he’d have the chance to get Irving in kelly green.
The early returns on Ainge being right about that deal have been so impressive that it’s got the Celtics president of basketball operations wondering if he might be wrong about something else:
I’m not sure I’d go that far, Danny. I’ll say this, though: the extreme planet-shape wokeness hasn’t convinced me of anything, but the style and substance of this scintillating start has got me starting to believe much more in the Celtics, and in the possibility that the best version of Kyrie Irving might just be coming into full view.
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