We are joking, of course. The Celtics are not going to ship out anybody as a knee-jerk reaction for a four-game losing streak, even if coach Doc Rivers did threaten moves just a few days ago if his players did not adjust their attitudes quickly. But anyone hoping for a reactionary move by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge got more ammunition for their argument when the Celtics came out and got toasted by Kyrie Irving on Tuesday.
Irving, who sent the Celtics packing with a twisting, last-second, game-winning layup in Cleveland last season, did not need to repeat that feat this time. The second-year guard dropped 40 points, one off his career high, and he managed to sew it all up with a healthy 22 seconds left on the clock.
Yet while Irving’s scoring showed up in bold-faced type, that alone was not why Boston lost. After all, the Celtics held Irving to only six points between his 19-point first quarter and his 15-point fourth quarter. But even when he did not score, Irving was able to dribble into the lane at will to open up opportunities for Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Luke Walton, contributing directly to Cleveland’s 18-point scoring advantage in the paint.
One of the overlooked aspects of the Celtics’ six-game winning streak, which now seems like so long ago, was that they largely avoided point guards with the ability to slash and distribute. D.J. Augustin and Jason Kidd are mostly stationary targets, Jeff Teague and the Hawks were playing for the second straight night, Goran Dragic is an inconsistent distributor and Jeremy Lin‘s issues are well-documented. The one guy who brought some elements of dynamism, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, had an off night in Boston, so the Celtics dodged a bullet against the one point guard in that stretch who may have given them trouble.
Irving has none of those flaws, and he definitely did not have an off night on Tuesday. In the last month, the Celtics have been victimized by Monta Ellis, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Isaiah Thomas and now Irving. The first four of those came before Avery Bradley‘s return, so there was a built-in rationalization, if not an excuse. Now there is no excuse.
Bradley is back, but neither he nor Rondo was able to slow down Irving. Obviously, Irving is very, very good, but that has not kept the Cavs from losing 32 of their first 42 games, even if the should-be All-Star missed 11 games with a broken face. Despite having two pretty good perimeter defenders in Bradley and Courtney Lee, the Celtics are not able to contain dribble penetration on a consistent basis, especially against the pick-and-roll. Defending the pick-and-roll is all about communication and trust, two qualities that are absent from these Celtics at the moment.
On the defining play of the game, though, there was no pick and roll. There was only Irving isolated at the top of the key against Rondo in a showdown of supposedly the two best players on the floor. Irving rocked the ball back and forth before just blowing by Rondo, and as Irving went up for a layup, Rondo gave him a little shove on the rear end. Irving flipped in a layup and collided with a stationary Jared Sullinger, who was incredulous when he was whistled for his sixth personal foul, but the fact was, Irving was fouled. The rookie was just the proxy for a call that should have gone against Rondo.
The layup was good, the free throw was good and the Celtics trailed by six points with 22.8 seconds remaining. It was over. The Celtics heard their coach’s challenge after the loss to the Pistons, and their answer was to get schooled by a 20-year-old whose top teammate, center Anderson Varejao, is out for the season with a blood clot in his lung.
Surprisingly, Rivers did not seem too put out by his team’s defensive effort on Tuesday. He liked the Celtics’ defense in the third quarter, when they held the Cavs to 6-for-22 shooting and took a three-point lead into the final quarter. He thought, like the Celtics’ players probably thought, that their experience might help them in a tight game.
“Then Kyrie Irving happened,” Rivers said.
Yes, he did. Celtics opponents have done a lot of “happening” lately, and the Celtics had better start making something happen themselves before Ainge delivers on Rivers’ threats, and something happens to them.