There was a play in the third quarter of the Celtics and Warriors game, which the Celtics won in stunning fashion on Thursday night, where Kyrie Irving found himself caught under his own basket defending Andre Iguodala.
Iguodala either missed the shot or lost the ball — that’s not important — what was exciting was that Irving was so active with his hands that it overwhelmed the bigger Iguodala and forced him into an error. I was so excited at the play that I turned to a friend I was watching the game with and yelled: “Look at Kyrie! My son!”
Irving has always been fun to watch on offense — not his scoring alone but the way that he moves in general. How he dribbles like he can hear Bruce Lee telling him to be like water with each bounce. His technically perfect spins. The passes that seem to slip right out of his hands. The high and improvised finishes around the rim. The ability and penchant to switch hands at the absolute last second. He moves like a well-orchestrated dance.
That fun is now extended to the defensive side of his game. He is not exactly locking players down — he’s no Patrick Beverley — but he doesn’t really have to be that in a team where defense is a group effort. He’s just more active now, to the point that he’s unrecognizable from the Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers as a defender.
He’s fighting through screens, staying on the jersey of his man regardless of how far he runs or how many juke moves he uses to try to avoid him. He’s invading passing lanes, ripping the ball out of his opponents’ hands, and embracing the challenge when he finds himself isolated one-on-one. As much as he would if he was the one on offense.
He might not be the best at defense, but him being present and active is starkly different than what he used to be. He’s not lost as it was assumed that he would be when he was traded to the Celtics. He fits right in with the team philosophy.
This change, of Irving becoming a more rounded player, or at least trying to be, is why I was in support of his decision to leave Cleveland. That ambition to be more than what he was should have been championed, but his move was met with skepticism and criticism.
Some of it was fair; he was known as an isolation player, not really a playmaker or a competent defender. He seemed the opposite of what Boston needed. If the Celtics wanted a guard who could score but couldn’t defend, they could have kept Isaiah Thomas, who was also better at getting his teammates involved in plays.
There was little evidence that Irving would dramatically change as a player just by changing teams. Past performance is the best indication of future performance after all.
That judgment had the error of not acknowledging the player’s own desires and why he wanted a change in the first place. Since arriving in Boston, Irving has heaped praise on it for being a “real” sports city, on Brad Stevens for challenging him intellectually, and on the team being able to carry him when he has a bad game. Not that that didn’t happen with the Cavaliers, but what he is getting at, I think, is that he likes being part of something, rather than the sidekick of someone else.
He was asked to be a specific thing as a sidekick in Cleveland: to carry the offensive load, mainly scoring, when LeBron James needed a break or when the team needed points quickly. It was LeBron’s team, a natural result of LeBron’s greatness, and Irving wanted more for himself than playing a role in the legacy of another player.
He’s not the leader or the face of the Celtics, but that was a mistake in thinking that he wanted his own team. He just wanted to be fulfilled as a player. He wanted to be the best that he could be, and he had to change systems to find out what his true potential was.
The challenge of improvement, to try and possibly fail at things that you’re not good at, should be an essential human motivation; to find out your limits and improve on them. This requires leaving your comfort zone. It meant Irving leaving an almost guaranteed life of making it to the NBA Finals, the possibility of winning more rings, to be a part of a more coherent team — a team that can shape him into something more than what he was before.
We often times concentrate too much on the end goal, the winning of a ring, and forget the journey that leads up to that or what is beyond it. Irving has won a ring, and I’m sure that he wants to win many more, as any player does.
But he also has a long career ahead of him. If he spent the next few years playing a role in LeBron’s battles against Golden State, then he never gets to be more than what he was at Cleveland. His potential would have been to be an improved version of that specific role that he played next to LeBron.
On the Celtics, he’s asked to do things that he either didn’t feel motivated to do before or wasn’t asked to do at all. His offensive and defensive games are consequential to the team’s success. He is both a star and a piece of a whole.
The team doesn’t gravitate around him, but it creates a foundation where he can still shine offensively. At the same time, the defense-first attitude of the team allows him to explore himself in that regard. He can try things and make mistakes and learn and enjoy himself. There’s not much more a player can ask for.
Irving’s time in Boston could still end in failure. It’s hard to predict the future. So far though, he has fit in seamlessly with his new team. That’s more than many people expected. The Celtics are asking him to be more present and involved on both offense and defense, and he’s responding well to the pressure. Now he has a chance to become what he believes that he can be, and that’s really a delightful thing to watch.