MILWAUKEE — It was the perfect existence for Kyrie Irving. He wasn’t overbearing offensively but brilliant enough to dominate. And he orchestrated the Celtics’ game plan to perfection with his facilitating.
It was exactly the type of game required to beat the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. Irving was his normal offensive force, but he induced plenty of help from his teammates.
The Celtics are going to have to win this series with their overall talent, not just Irving’s scoring heroics. That’s exactly what occurred in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Sunday at Fiserv Forum.
The Celtics whipped the Bucks, 112-90, as five players scored in double figures, led by Irving’s rather quiet 26. Irving incorporated his teammates. He whipped passes around the floor. He sparked fast breaks by getting rebounds and pushing the ball. He was the well-rounded, multifaceted Irving that has developed in his second season with the Celtics.
Of course, there will be nights where the Celtics will require Irving to score 40-plus to win, but they have the talent to beat other elite teams and accomplish their goals with Irving not having to do so much scoring. They’d prefer it that way.
“When I’m out there, I don’t try to put too much of an emphasis on thinking too much about trying to be aggressive or trying to be too much of a facilitator. That will take me out of my game,” he said. “I just wanted to come out aggressive, establish myself around the post, establish myself around the midrange area and then after that I knew the adjustments they were going to make were going to dictate the rest of the pace of the game.”
Considering Irving missed the entire postseason last year and considering he’s the unquestioned face of Celtics, this is an important series for his reputation and legacy.
After scoring 8 points with a flurry of buckets to help the Celtics surge to a 26-17 lead after one quarter, Irving made his scoring statement. He let Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe know he is an upgrade from Terry Rozier, who started at point guard in his place in last season’s playoffs. He helped the Celtics seize the lead and gain momentum.
After that, he sprinkled his shot attempts deliberately for the next three quarters. During the Celtics’ 36-point third quarter that broke open a 2-point game, Irving attempted just five shots and scored 6 points, yet he was a plus-16.
He can do more than score and dazzle with his ball-handling. On this day, they didn’t need that Kyrie.
“I really don’t worry about shots; I can get shots any time I want,” he said. “I think everybody in the building knows that. But besides that, the evolution of my game has come from just being able to pace the game very well and manage it, and establish these guys throughout the game because they’re special as well. I’m even more special when they’re making shots and they’re doing what they do. I try go out there and just ease into it. Just be aggressive and that will open up opportunities for my teammates.”
It’s not necessarily that Irving is maturing more than it is his taking advantage of the opportunity with his new team. He missed the entire postseason last season after knee surgery, so we never got a chance to see Playoff Kyrie in Boston. During his Cleveland years he was the second or third option at best, and on many occasions, LeBron James played point forward and Irving played shooting guard off the ball.
The Celtics have proven they can win without Irving being a dynamic scorer. He scored 37 points in the Game 2 first-round victory over the Indiana Pacers. But in the other three games, with the Indiana defense trapping and denying him the ball, Irving shot 34.6 percent from the field and averaged 17.6 points. Boston won all three games.
So with Irving being more efficient offensively (12 for 21, 2 for 5 from the 3-point line), the Celtics were at their best. Defensively, they stymied MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, held the Bucks to 36 percent shooting on 2-point shots and sealed the game with a stirring 32-9 run in the third quarter that left Fiserv Forum silent.
Irving did his part but he also allowed his teammates to do theirs. His pick-and-roll game with Al Horford was masterful, as Horford scored 20 points and could have added more if he had converted a couple of more open shots.
What’s more, six of Irving’s 11 assists were baskets by Horford and four were baskets by Jaylen Brown. If the Bucks are going to continue to trap Irving on the pick-and-roll so he doesn’t shoot the jumper or penetrate, he’s going to find Horford for the open look.
“That’s what he’s got to do,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said about Irving finding the open shooter. “I thought he was great, obviously very efficient shooting the ball with the amount of attention on him. I mean some of those shots in the first quarter were ridiculous. I think when he drew two [defenders], he made the next right play. I thought we all did a much better job of our last regular-season game here of doing that.”
Equally as important as Kyrie the scorer and facilitator is Kyrie the leader. He is the lone NBA champion on the roster and can offer more insight and wisdom as the games become tougher and more challenging. He has become the voice of reason in the locker room, leading in a different way than he did a few months ago. And that method has been more effective.
“Kyrie has been in our ear, even weeks before the regular season even ended about the commitment and what we needed to do as a group, and how we needed to prepare and get better,” Horford said. “We understood what he was trying to tell us and have taken him up on that challenge of trying to be better and do the little things to get us to this point.”