DALLAS — Kyrie Irving’s Twitter bio consists of one four-word sentence: “Fear is not real.”
One would be forgiven for chuckling at such a line, seeing as how it sounds lifted directly from a Nike promotional tour. But when it comes to Irving, it can also be seen as an accurate depiction of how he feels and reacts in a game’s most pressure-filled moments.
Take Monday night, for example. The Boston Celtics came here to face the dismal Mavericks, hoping to extend their remarkable winning streak to 16 games, only to find themselves once again trailing by double-digits in the fourth quarter. But just when it looked as though the Celtics might wilt in the face of a surprising effort from a game Mavericks squad, Irving was there to carry them home.
With 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime — including going 4-for-4 from the field and scoring 10 points in the extra session — Irving finished the game with 47 points on 16-for-22 shooting, lifting Boston to a 110-102 victory and leading the Celtics to yet another dramatic, come-from-behind victory
“It’s just fun, man,” Irving said afterward of his success in late and close situations. “That’s it. It’s pretty simple. I don’t really see it as a pressure situation … it’s just fun basketball. It’s like being in the park, and the game is 7-7, and the game is to eight, and someone calls win by two and you’re calling straight up. That’s when the defense starts to crank up, and you see some unbelievable plays. I don’t want to say the NBA is like playing at the park, but to me, I kind of just see that as that fun basketball.
“You don’t always be in that situation, but if it’s warranted for you to kind of be in that situation, if you have to take over, then that’s what you do.”
That’s precisely why the Celtics brought Irving to Boston in a stunning summer blockbuster deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. As Irving has shown throughout his career, there are few better at it.
“Obviously, he’s got every move imaginable, but then on top of that, he’s one of the best shooters in the league,” Celtics Coach Brad Stevens said. “I think sometimes everybody gets caught up in the moves and the dribbling and different things he can do with the ball, but his touch is beautiful with both hands. He draws a lot of attention.
“He’s got every bit of the game you could have. He’s got it.”
It’s not like anyone didn’t know this before this season. After all, Irving had garnered a well-earned reputation for coming up big in clutch situations during his first six seasons with the Cavaliers, most notably his game-winning three-pointer over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that capped Cleveland’s comeback from being down 3-1 and was one of the biggest shots in the history of the league.
But Irving did all of that in the shadow of LeBron James, the greatest player of this generation and one of the greatest of all-time. This summer, he decided he was ready to be the one casting his own shadow over his own franchise, which is why he chose to ask for a trade away from the Cavaliers in the first place.
As Irving said at his introductory news conference in September, he was looking for an opportunity to “be with a group of individuals that I can grow with.” And while he dismissed talk of being the face of the franchise or the leader of the team before Monday’s game, there’s little doubt he became both the moment he arrived in Boston.
Moments such as the ones Irving created Monday night are why Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge decided that it was Irving — not Paul George or Jimmy Butler — for whom he would be willing to finally push his chips to the middle of the table in a blockbuster trade. As each trade deadline and offseason passed with the Celtics hanging onto their war chest of draft picks, plenty of people around the league wondered when — or if — Boston would ever cash some in on a star.
Then, when the Celtics did finally make their move by trading for Irving, just as many people wondered why it wasn’t for a player like George or Butler, instead.
So far, though, it’s worked out as well as both Irving and the Celtics could have hoped. Even after Gordon Hayward was lost for the season on opening night, Boston has managed to take the league by storm, with two more moves against conventional wisdom — taking Jaylen Brown with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft, and then trading down to take Jayson Tatum (and pick up a future first) in the same spot in 2017 — with both looking like outstanding moves to this point.
“It’s probably exceeded [my expectations],” Irving said. “It was hard to kind of envision what it would actually look like. So now that I’m here, I live presently, so every single day is another day for us to experience new things as a group, and for me to experience new things individually. I just try to bring that wisdom and knowledge to the team and help my teammates and go from there.”
His wisdom is undoubtedly appreciated on a team featuring so many young players, with seven under 25 and eight on rookie contracts. But it is Irving’s ability to come up big in the most pressure-filled moments that’s why Ainge bet big on him this summer, and why, after Monday’s 47-point explosion, Boston moves on with its winning streak still intact.
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