PHOENIX — After perhaps his best game of the young season, in which he put the Boston Celtics on his back and carried them over the finish line to avoid a loss that would have rippled throughout New England, Kyrie Irving participated in his post-game interview and slowly walked off the floor.
He embraced a friend on the baseline and meandered toward the tunnel, stopping briefly to hand his jersey to a kid behind the railing and his shoes to fans.
Irving was tired, and understandably so. He poured in 39 points on 13-for-28 shooting, including 6-for-13 from behind the arc. His triple with under a minute remaining closed the gap to three and his drive-and-kick to Marcus Morris with 0.4 seconds remaining set the stage for Morris’ game-tying three to send the contest — somehow — into overtime.
“The team in the second half, I know who that is,” Irving said. “The team in the first half, that’s not who we want to consistently be on any stage. We learned a lot about staying resilient.”
Boston’s first-half performance was perhaps the most miserable of the season (and there have been some options). Aside from Irving, the Celtics’ starters went scoreless in both quarters. Jayson Tatum was benched in favor of Marcus Smart to start the second. The team finished the first quarter shooting 18 percent from the field and finished the half little better, at 22 percent.
In the second half, the Celtics started to make some of the shots they missed in the first, and they closed the gap a bit. But Irving’s brilliance down the stretch — 18 points in the fourth and overtime on 7-for-12 shooting — was the difference, even as Morris and Jaylen Brown stepped up in the closing minutes.
“I thought we came out in the third quarter with a lot of effort and a lot of toughness,” Brad Stevens said. “Some plays didn’t go our way, but it could have been six or eight going into the fourth. But as it was we stuck with it. I told (Suns coach) Igor (Kokoskov) we didn’t deserve to win the game, but it was a great individual performance by Kyrie certainly, and Morris hit another huge shot for us. But we have a long way to go.”
Stevens isn’t wrong. But after spending multiple media availabilities talking about how the Celtics need to put together 48 good minutes, Stevens watched his team play roughly 29 good ones (by his count) and still eke out a victory. That can happen when a star goes off.
Irving said the Celtics got down on themselves early, after missing shot after shot.
“I just think that naturally we all want it now and there’s a key word that goes into this whole entire season, and that’s patience,” Irving said. “And that’s even within games. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to be fine. I’m going to make sure of it. We’re going to be fine. Brad’s going to make sure of it. Our team is going to make sure of it. We’re going to be okay no matter what’s going on out there. And I think that just comes with trust over time in just what we’ve got going here.”
In his last five games, Irving is averaging 29.4 points per game on 55.9 percent shooting, including 53.3 percent from behind the arc. He’s getting teammates involved — 5.2 assists per game, which could be more if not for the Celtics’ occasional icy-cold stretches — and defending, grabbing 1.6 steals per game.
When a player is doing everything, his assertion that the team will be fine because he will make sure of it doesn’t ring hollow. After all, basketball doesn’t always need to be difficult when a team is as talented as Boston.
“It’s just easy when you’re just selfless, knowing that when you see two bodies in front of you or a decision needs to be made or that extra swing pass needs to be made,” Irving said. “Just flow into it, don’t even think about it. When we get to that point then you know that the trust is there and we can continue to grow from that point. I think we made steps in the right direction tonight of being able to will this win tonight on the defensive end, and offensively we just executed. We stayed in the high pick-and-roll, got to where we needed to be, guys were making 0.5-second decisions with the basketball, it wasn’t any thinking or anything like that. Shoot the ball and get back on defense. That’s it. Simple basketball when you make it that way.”