BOSTON — Kyrie Irving knows his reputation as a defender.
More importantly, the Boston Celtics guard knows his reputation — a minus defender who makes up for the losses with his offense — isn’t unfair. But now, gifted a new role as a leader on a talented team, Irving said he hopes to show he’s more than just a scorer.
“I think that even for me, (I’m) coming to the realization that I’ve coasted certain times on the defensive end throughout seasons and haven’t taken the challenge,” Irving said, after Boston’s 93-90 loss to the Orlando Magic on Monday. “This year, I want to take that challenge and stop my man and lead these guys on the defensive end first. We all feel good when we get out in transition and get easy baskets and everyone’s playing hard. That for me is a challenge, just internally, that I’m taking on.”
Irving has made similar statements before, and at times, he has shown flashes of the defender he could become with some additional attention to detail. A high-IQ player with quick hands and elite footwork, Irving could in theory be above-average two ways — a pick-pocket guard who sees plays developing and makes smart reads in passing lanes. During Cleveland’s run to the 2016 NBA championship, one of the surprises was how Irving defended Steph Curry and Golden State’s core of guards.
But too often, Irving has been inattentive, focusing the bulk of his energies on offense. That’s not without justification. His offense is otherworldly, and it’s why the Celtics (and other teams) respect him so much in the first place. But improving his defense even a little bit would vault him into another conversation.
“I think the next eight to 10 years — God willing I’m able to play that long — I want to take that challenge on that end,” Irving said. “And in order to do that, you have to be in phenomenal shape.”
A closer look at the film backs Irving’s claim that he’s been more plugged in defensively so far. On the first play of the game against the Magic, Irving got switched onto Nikola Vucevic and alertly re-switched himself twice — out of the paint and then again away from a troublesome mismatch. As it unfolds, he directs the defense around himself (this set resulted in a missed three by Orlando).
“(Re-switching) is still an area of emphasis for us because we have the dynamic of great length on the wing,” Irving said. “It’s just fast. It’s fast. So we just have to build on that communication and get better at it. Obviously, switching pick-and-rolls, we don’t want to concede to the switches too much. Teams will start throwing it in, and they’ll collapse their defense on us. We still have to figure it out, but I think it’s been going pretty well. Transition is killing us right now, but that’s just effort. And half court has been more connective.”
When Irving doesn’t switch, he isn’t as strong as some point guards, but he has quick hands and a knack for swiping.
Irving also appears to be fighting over and sliding under screens more effectively than in the past, when he tended to run straight into them more often than not.
That’s the micro-level. On a macro-level, Boston still has some issues. While the team’s defensive rating through four games is good (97.3, which is second in the league with an almost embarrassingly small sample size), it hasn’t translated into offense.
Meanwhile, Irving’s individual defensive rating — for whatever it’s worth — is horrendous: 108.9 so far. Combined with his offensive struggles prior to Tuesday, he’s sporting a putrid net rating of -10.8.
As noted by the Action Network’s Matt Moore, lineups with Irving and Marcus Morris have gotten shredded in particular. So what’s happening there?
From the tape, it’s honestly hard to tell (which suggests it might be noise). For instance: During a third-quarter stretch when Orlando’s lead ballooned to 13, one of Boston’s worst on Monday, both Irving and Morris were in. But neither were really involved in the scoring plays — Morris was covering Jonathan Isaac, and Irving was marking Augustin. The Magic, meanwhile, more or less ran a three-man game with Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier to great effect against Al Horford, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Vucevic made a couple of tough shots, and Gordon lost Tatum back door for a corner triple.
That’s not to say Irving and Morris are blameless. Teammates still seem to overhelp a little bit around Irving, and he is still responsible for the occasional missed rotation. Irving certainly won’t turn into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate overnight.
But as Irving (correctly) will tell you over and over again, the season is still extremely young. That works both for and against him — the Celtics need much more time to click before poor numbers mean anything, but any improvements to Irving’s defensive concentration should be treated the same way. Focus can come and go from game to game, and even possession by possession (the first clip of Irving scram switching is from the first possession of the game).
But little steps here and there could make a big difference when shooting percentages start to rise and the numbers begin to smooth out. At the very least, Irving’s effort will be worth watching.
“Being on a team like this where it’s a challenge for me to figure out where do I fit into all this and how do I lead this team the best way I can with other great players,” Irving said. “So it’s all a learning experience. I just try not to put too much pressure on it because, I mean, everybody else does enough of the pressure for us. So I just try to keep everybody calm and keep myself calm, and just realize that it’s a long season and nights like this where you should just take it as a hit on the chin, a learning experience, and you move forward.”