I was half-watching the Celtics and Sixers Christmas Day game and half-reading a book when, with just over 40 seconds left in regulation, I glanced up to see a Celtics player take a bad layup against a draped-on defender. I muttered to myself that it was a stupid shot. When I saw the replay, I realized it was Kyrie Irving, and I reproached myself.
Irving simply can’t be held to the same standards as everyone else on what constitutes a good shot. Not only does he seem to relish the more difficult situations, he also has the creativity and technique to find little amounts of space and finish under those seemingly impossible circumstance. It sometimes feels like he’s playing a game of HORSE at the rim by himself.
There are players whose games are so particular and full of nuance that the eye test is essential to appreciate their full impact. Jimmy Butler’s defense is one, Luka Doncic is a recent addition, Ricky Rubio and his passes is one of my favorites, and so is Giannis Antetokounmpo and the seemingly mythical things he does. For these players, the standard descriptors and measurements of what they do feel dead compared to the action of them.
But Kyrie is at the top of the list of those players for me. When he has the ball — especially when he’s isolated against a defender, which allows him space and time to do whatever he wants — there comes an air of improvisation about what he’s going to do that is so rare in a game that’s planned down to the smallest details.
After Wilson Chandler hit a three to put the Sixers up in the closing seconds of regulation, I put my book down because I knew Kyrie was going to do something amazing.
Irving came down and isolated against Butler on the left wing. The rest of the players on the court cluttered on the right side, and became as much a part of the audience as the fans. Irving danced a bit by the three-point line, then tried to drive inside of Butler to no avail.
Then Irving dribbled to the right, and with Butler’s hand right in his face, took a leaning and arching jumper over his persistent defender and forced overtime.
@KyrieIrving saves Christmas with the clutch bucket to force overtime in tonight’s @JetBlue Play of the Game! pic.twitter.com/wbKUZ2gllt— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 26, 2018
After the game, Irving admitted that his 40-point game was in part because he wanted to entertain his extended family who was in attendance, and who hadn’t seen him play live before.
“I came into the locker room and said my family is here to watch me play ... I told my teammates, ‘I’ve got like 20-plus people from my family here, so I’m acting up. Like you guys have no idea, I’m so excited.”
Few players embrace the spotlight and pressure like Irving does. He’s a walking sports drink commercial, complete with all the clichés about rising to the occasion and proving yourself in the most pivotal moments.
Irving often makes difficult shots and comes up big in pressure moments, but it’s his style in doing those things that makes him particularly entertaining. Irving is enchanting in the way he tries numerous crossovers, drives, keeps the ball bouncing while slipping, and then shoots a turnaround jumper over an extended arm.
“Fun” is often a useless aspect of a player’s game. Two points is two points, an assist of any kind still leads to the same result on the scoreboard, and a deflection or steal doesn’t gain more importance because Butler seems precognitive when he they occur. Most players have go-to moves that they use for points, and play within schemes to allow them to maximize their intelligence and ability.
Irving is simply one of the few that can receive the ball and have the full realm of offensive possibilities open to him, with the only assurance being that what he does next will be entertaining.
What’s ordinarily useless fun is a necessary parts of Kyrie’s game. He’s an elite marriage of aesthetically pleasing style and numbers. He doesn’t have to take those difficult layups, but he does, and he actually makes them. He over-dribbles in ways that get disciplined out of other players, but in doing so he creates space and opportunity. He has to dance around in order to make those game-tying or buzzer-beating game-winners.
After the game, Jimmy Butler complimented Irving’s ability to create space and make those shots that others can’t:
“He’s done that his entire career — take and make tough shots. That’s why he is the type of player that he is in this league. That’s why I respect his game so much ... Whenever you go up against him, even [with] great defense, he can still make the shot.”
Marcus Morris said of Irving’s dribbling and game-tying shot:
“I’m about used to it now. When he first came, it was crazy. But some of the s--- don’t even surprise me no more with how often he does it.”
Irving in full flow, is a player that I would describe as profound. You can’t half-watch him while reading or just check his numbers afterwards. When he’s twisting and turning defenders inside out and throwing up high layups that somehow drop in, it’s easy to become entranced by what he’s doing, and how he’s doing it, his balletic movements and his on-the-spot creation.
He’s so artful that you have to give him your full attention in order to appreciate him.