'The Great Ones Can Redefine It': How Kyrie Irving Reset His Reputation
Charles Krupa/Associated PressNEW YORK — The visiting locker room at Barclays Center had all the trappings of getaway day.Locker room attendants scurried about, picking up socks and tape and sweaty compression shorts. Players dressed quickly and bundled up for the 7-degree arctic tundra whipping down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, hoping to make the first bus out of the borough.The Boston Celtics had just escaped Brooklyn with an 87-85 victory over the Nets on Saturday night, and now they were preparing to escape the continent, too—with the best record in the East. Galvanizing them in this feat of consistent excellence at roughly the midway point of the 2017-18 NBA season has been the offensive wizardry, leadership and defensive grunt work contributed by none other than Kyrie Irving.Wait, did the words leadership, defense and Kyrie Irving just appear in the same sentence? This may take some getting used to, this new world in which LeBron James' one-time sidekick now has his own championship-contending team to run."We don't want to be most teams," Irving said in the locker room, explaining how the Celtics avoided the setup for a classic letdown game. Playing without Al Horford (sore left knee) and riding a five-game winning streak, it would've been easy to mail in this one-off road trip to frigid Brooklyn and enjoy a few days off before heading to London.Irving wouldn't have it. In the final, crucial moments of a low-scoring slop-fest, Irving drove the lane and spun one of his high-arcing one-handers off the glass. It caromed off, momentarily landing in the hands of the Nets' Spencer Dinwiddie. That is, until Irving ripped it out and found his late-game clutch buddy, Jayson Tatum, open in the corner for a three-pointer that gave the Celtics an 87-83 lead with 45 seconds left.It was another example of the chemistry and burgeoning trust that has developed between Irving and Tatum, a fellow Duke Blue Devil and the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft."He better make it," Irving said. "Wide-open in the corner, rookie or not, you better make the shot. Step into it and shoot it with confidence, and that's what he's been doing."Kyrie Irving has taken to being a mentor to Celtics first-round pick Jayson Tatum. The two knew each other before becoming teammates this season.Charles Krupa/Associated Press/Associated PressAs Boston heads across the pond with a 33-10 record (second only to Golden State's 33-8), the driving force has been Irving, who is relishing his freedom from LeBron's shadow in his first season with the rival Celtics. He was always known for his electrifying handle and sublime offensive gifts. But Irving, suddenly acting like an elder statesman at 25, has exuded not just the ability to drive the ball to the basket, but to drive a first-place team at both ends of the floor.With the highest usage rating of his career (31.3), Irving has posted his lowest turnover percentage (10.1) and highest win shares per 48 minutes (.218) while also achieving the best defensive rating of his seven-year tenure (104), according to Basketball Reference. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has witnessed Irving's determination on defense firsthand and doesn't think it's a coincidence."I think he's really smart and he knows the narrative, and the great ones can redefine it," Stevens told Bleacher Report. "We always looked at him as a guy who had really good hands, really good feet, was good in isolation and who was a guy that people had maybe underrated on that end a little bit. But I think he continues to get better. Great players want to prove to people all the time that they can do it. He's proven it, and the best way he's proven it is to be consistent with it."Horford, a four-time All-Star who knows something about leadership, said Irving's style isn't to do a whole lot of talking. That makes what he does have to say that much more impactful.Though Irving reached three consecutive Finals alongside LeBron James, Al Horford believes Irving wasn't able to tap into his leadership skills on the Cavs' veteran-laden roster.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press"I think in Cleveland, he was one of the younger guys in the group, so as good as he was, he had all the vets in the world that probably gave him all the advice and had everything kind of figured out," Horford told B/R. "He's in a position now where he's one of the veterans, and he can come in and establish himself and command the respect that he brings. He's a champion. ... He's more selective with what he says, but when he says it, it commands that respect and attention, and we listen to him."Irving's voice was drowned out in Cleveland, where LeBron "sucked all the oxygen out of the room," an Eastern Conference executive told B/R. But the exec doesn't buy that leaving LeBron behind is the only factor in Irving's newfound maturity, and he cautions that Irving and the Celtics are still in the "honeymoon phase.""By kind of forcing his way out, he's also put an obligation on himself that he kind of has to walk a line, in my opinion," the executive told B/R. "If he goes there and then does not step up to the plate, then it looks more and more like maybe you're the problem."If LeBron had never gone to Cleveland, [Irving] wouldn't have been winning," the exec said. "Some of that is a little bit of a natural progression. I don't know that he's all of a sudden become a great leader. But if nothing else, he's the best player on the team and the guy that people look to.