When Kyrie Irving shocked the NBA world this past summer by proclaiming his want to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers, he drew a bullseye on his own back for this season.
By publicly divorcing himself from arguably the greatest player ever in LeBron James after making three straight NBA Finals appearances, and citing his reasoning for leaving was to maximize his own potential, Irving opened himself up to a whole new world of criticism.
While it may be difficult to stand in James’ shadow for so long inside the building, on the outside perception couldn’t be more different. When a James team loses or underperforms, it falls on his shoulders in the public eye. That’s the price tag of greatness. Under James’ wing, Irving rarely felt the blame for Cleveland’s mishaps. But when he would put on his spectacles of scoring or ridiculous sequences of ball-handling, he received all the praise in the world. That’s usually the life of a second fiddle star.
Irving consciously chose to walk away from that life, though. He wanted to forge his own path and create his own legacy separate of the time he shared with James. That led him to the Boston Celtics with newly signed star forward Gordon Hayward. Irving and Hayward, the tandem that was going to shake up the Eastern Conference and challenge James’ supremacy was here to stay.
That lasted about all of five minutes.
After Hayward went down with a gruesome injury on opening night, there was Irving thrust quickly into the situation he so publicly yearned for. His own team. His moment to maximize his potential. In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 season was Irving’s for the taking in Boston. Could he succeed without James or Hayward? Could he lead a team to wins by himself? We know he can score, but can he run the show?
Answer yes, emphatically, to those questions, please.
Following Hayward’s injury and two straight losses to start the season, Irving and the Celtics are winners of nine straight games and the league’s best record.
The Cavaliers minus Irving? Well, they’re 4-6 currently sitting behind the likes of Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, and Orlando Magic. All lottery teams last season.
Granted, Cleveland’s problems at the moment go well beyond the subtraction of Irving from their equation. But that’s not to say the crossover wizard wouldn’t help mask some of those problems.
It’s still early in the season, and Irving and the Celtics still have a long way to go before they’re crowned anything besides the champions of October. But at the current moment, those who doubted the 6-foot-3 point guard for wanting his own team are feverishly scrolling back to delete old tweets.
A culmination of Irving’s first few weeks in a Celtics uniform came to a head Monday night in Atlanta.
In a tight contest with the bottom-feeding Hawks, Irving asserted his all-star dominance to help Boston secure their NBA-leading ninth win of the season. Posting a 35-point, seven-assist, three-rebound box score line, Irving saved his biggest punch for the final quarter. In the game’s final 12 minutes, Irving scored 12 points. On the night he registered a 137 offensive rating and posted a ridiculous 73.7 true shooting percentage.
Irving was a killer. He embodied the “Mamba Mentality” that he was searching for when he left Cleveland.
Good teams are supposed to beat bad teams. That isn’t rocket science. But professional sports can be tricky on a nightly basis. Sometimes you get caught off guard by a weaker opponent. In those moments, leadership and talent are the qualities that help the better teams prevail more often than not. Monday night was a moment that showed Irving is in a position to take his next step as a leader, not just play sidekick anymore.
At 25 years old, Irving has already lived a successful NBA life. He’s won a title, hit the game-winning shot in a Game 7 of the Finals, been an All-Star, made millions, and received his own shoe. All while never being “the guy.”
Under the tutelage of one of the NBA’s brightest minds in Brad Stevens — an “intellectual mind” that Irving told Geno Auriemma he’d been “craving” his whole career — Irving looks the part of more than just a scoring guard.
So far this season, Irving’s assist percentage is the highest it’s been since his second year in the league, in large part to having the ball in his hands more often now that he’s not sharing the floor with James. To couple that, his turnover percentage is the lowest of his career.
Irving’s numbers across the board aren’t career-highs. He’s not scorching the earth that he’s so convinced is flat with his scoring barrages. But what he is doing so far for the Boston Celtics is what many were skeptical this summer if he could do without James, and that’s winning basketball games. Irving’s directing his own show now, and the early returns prove that it’s a hit.
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