Tomase: We expected Kyrie Irving to be great and we were still somehow wrong

John Tomase
November 20, 2017 - 12:20 pm
Celtics guard Kyrie Irving celebrates with fans after beating the Warriors.

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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The biggest revelation in a Celtics season full of them? Kyrie Irving is better than we thought at pretty much everything.

Even if you loved the Irving trade when it was announced in August -- "Kyrie Irving is a mother-bleeping Celtic," I wrote, eschewing the journalistic misdemeanor known as the exclamation point only upon final edit -- it's doubtful you saw this coming.

We knew his handle ranked among the top two or three in the league. We didn't know it would wear out the rewind and slow-mo buttons on our DVRs six times a game.

We knew he wanted the ball in crunch time because we saw him hit a game-winner in the 2016 Finals. We didn't know he'd take over the fourth quarter with such routine nonchalance.

We knew he could break down a defense, but we had no idea he'd so selflessly facilitate for everyone from Aron Baynes to Al Horford.

We knew he wanted to escape LeBron's shadow and prove he could win on his own. We worried that it spoke to a superstar selfishness once endemic to the NBA, with Irving's personal brand eclipsing any team accomplishments. Instead, he has committed himself on both ends of the floor as a quiet cog in Brad Stevens's system.

Those are just the things we thought we knew. Then there are all the ways Irving has surprised us. After charitably being branded a disinterested defender in Cleveland, he has made the effort in Boston. He may only be league-average, but that's a lot more than most of us expected, and he's doing his part within the league's best defense.

We similarly worried that Irving's superstar status might present a challenge to Stevens, whose Belichick-esque mantra of doing your job and playing for your teammates could've been torpedoed by an egotist who believed the earth revolved around him. But Irving has integrated himself into the greater whole.

And speaking of the earth, Irving was mocked for claiming it's flat, even though that always seemed pretty clearly to be a sarcastic commentary on the central tenet of Trumpism -- the truth is what I say it is. Would Irving's New Age philosophizing and occasional sullen belligerence make enemies of the notoriously pugilistic Boston media? Outside of the S-my-D incident in Philadelphia, Irving has been on his best behavior.

Ironically, the one area where he has slightly underperformed expectations -- though in a good way -- is as a scorer. A year after averaging a career-high 25.2 points alongside LeBron, he's at 20.9. We expected him to assume Isaiah Thomas's outsized role in the offense and drop 30 a night, a total he has instead only reached twice in 16 contests. Irving has simply let the game come to him.

Part of that might be playing alongside Horford, the only other healthy All-Star on the roster. They've developed an incredible rapport from jump, representing twin nightmares in the pick and roll, since both can pass, shoot 3's, and finish at the rim. The world champion Warriors had no answer for their two-man game in crunch time on Thursday.

Even when Irving periodically forces a shot, like the wayward Steph Curry-style pull-up 3 late in the win over Golden State, you don't care because he's going for the knockout. He landed that punch by single-handedly outscoring the Warriors down the stretch, just as he put away the Hawks to extend the winning streak to 15 on Saturday with a step-back corner 3 over Dennis Schroder.

In those moments, you're reminded of Irving's ability to take over a game. But he has spent the rest of his time encouraging his teammates, whether it's yelling, "Make it! Make it! Make it!" at guard Shane Larkin after setting him up for a big 3-pointer against the Nets, or leaping off the bench to lead the cheers following both of Jayson Tatum's coast-to-coast dunks against the Hawks over the weekend.

If Tom Brady ever decides to retire, Boston could become Kyrie's town in short order. He's only 25, he's a singular NBA talent, and we haven't even mentioned that at some point in 2018 he'll get to play alongside Gordon Hayward, too.

Even the most ardent Isaiah Thomas lovers knew we were getting a superstar when Irving came to town. But how often do we get to say this -- he's far better than we expected.

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