Three NBA games, two involving the Celtics, in three days brought this foggy season and the future of the Celtics into clearer focus.
In those crazy three days, the Celtics blew leads of 18 and 28 points. In between those collapses, Pelicans superstar center Anthony Davis was benched for the fourth quarter of a game he was dominating.
Those three games inspired three inescapable conclusions:
First, the Celtics aren’t very good when Kyrie Irving hogs the ball as he did in Thursday night’s fall-from-ahead loss to LeBron James’ Lakers.
Second, Davis is very, very good, great even, and the Celtics, the Pelicans and the NBA will be much better off if the teams can reach agreement on a trade that puts the NBA’s best center in a green jersey.
Third, despite a 7-2 record in games that Irving sits out, the Celtics aren’t as good without him as they are with him, as long as he’s not in Stephon Marbury mode, turning teammates into spectators by monopolizing the ball.
First conclusions first.
Irving didn’t let getting his shot blocked deter him from repeatedly driving to the hoop to get it blocked again in Thursday’s 129-128 loss to the Lakers in a game the Celtics led by 18 points. Irving made just 6-of-21 shots from the field on a night he totaled 24 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, three turnovers and two steals.
The Celtics have too many capable scorers for anyone who’s not on fire to hoist 21 shots. In games Irving puts up 20 shots or more, the Celtics are 8-9. When he takes fewer than 20 shots, the Celtics are 20-10.
Ball-hog apologists will point out that on a night the offense is stagnant it’s only natural that the best offensive player, the one who can create shots at will, has to try to bring the team back on his own. That’s true to a degree, but it doesn’t explain such a wild disparity in the two records, and certainly wasn’t the case in the debacle against the Lakers.
Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford all know how to score when set up by a point guard as gifted at drawing multiple defenders on drives to the hoop as Irving is.
Not that Irving couldn’t benefit from having a spectacular post player skilled at scoring in multiple ways, which brings us to Davis. The shocking lack of local excitement at the prospect of landing Davis in the offseason, the best I can figure, can be traced to an emotional hedge, people protecting against getting their hopes being elevated and then crushed because LeBron tends to get what LeBron wants and LeBron wants Davis. Who wouldn’t want him?
On Friday night, in 25 minutes against the Timberwolves, Davis produced 32 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots in a game the Pelicans held on to win. The benching was explained afterward as him having reached his minutes restriction of 25. A minutes maximum for a player coming off a finger injury? Nonsense. The Pelicans need to play him as many minutes as necessary to give the team the best shot at winning, not to give them their best shot at preserving his offseason trade value by minimizing his risk of injury. To do otherwise would be to embarrass the NBA. Davis broke the rules by demanding a trade, was fined $50,000, and the high road was wide open for the Pelicans to travel. Instead, they drove into a ditch.
The next night after that fiasco, Irving was in share-the-ball mode, making 4 of 7 shots to put the Celtics on course for a blowout. They led by as many as 28 points, Irving sprained his knee, didn’t play the rest of the way and the Celtics lost by 11 points. For a change, they looked lost without him.
A deeper dig on the 7-2 record without Irving in the lineup reveals that seven of the games were at home and six were against teams with a losing record.