Kyrie Irving had complained this month about his lack of peripheral vision while wearing a protective mask. But it seems impossible that Irving didn’t see the five black jerseys in front of him as the Boston Celtics point guard strode across the half-court line in the fourth quarter of last week’s game against the Atlanta Hawks.
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No, Irving simply wasn’t going to be deterred from going to the basket as crunch time neared.
Having caught Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder on his heels while trying to get back in transition, Irving accelerated, performed a little dribble move and started up near the left blocks.
By the time the ball floated from his left hand, there were five Hawks in the paint with him, four of whom went up to contest the shot. It’s astounding Irving didn’t get stripped or blocked; though the shot didn’t fall, he got to the free throw line in a two-possession game.
With a little more than a minute to go, he somehow created space with a step-back 3 in the left corner that he splashed. It was the second time in six games that Irving had scored 12 fourth-quarter points against the Hawks, and Boston’s double-digit win streak rolled on. That streak would reach 16 games before ending Wednesday night in Miami.
Kyrie hits the dagger from the cornerWith the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter, Kyrie Irving sinks a 3-pointer over Dennis Schroder to seal the Celtics’ 15th consecutive win.
What is it about the fourth quarter for Irving?
“Pretty simple: It’s winning time, man,” Irving said. “Been doing it for a few years in the league in the fourth quarter. Just doing whatever is needed to get the win.”
Isaiah Thomas produced one of the most memorable offensive seasons in Celtics history last year and earned the Game of Thrones-inspired nickname “King in the Fourth,” based on his absurd final-quarter exploits.
Irving helped Boston win 16 straight games after an 0-2 start. Eight of the wins on that steak, which ended Wednesday in Miami, required final-quarter comebacks that often featured Irving.
It seemed unlikely that anyone could rival Thomas’ fourth-quarter production any time soon. So even though Irving arrived with a reputation as one of the league’s most clutch players, it was fair to wonder if he could carry the Celtics late in games in the same way that Thomas did.
Irving isn’t scoring with quite the same volume as Thomas did last year, but Irving has been maybe more efficient and has only cemented his own reputation as one of the league’s best late-game players.
Kings of clutch time
How Isaiah Thomas’ 2016-17 “clutch” production (final five minutes of a game within five points) compares to that of Kyrie Irving’s so far this season:
ISAIAH THOMAS KYRIE IRVING
Points 5.1 5.4
FG% 47.8 61.5
3PT% 40.0 30.8
Assist 0.4 0.8
Turnovers 0.3 0.0
Off. Rating 125.4 130.1
Def. Rating 107.2 109.1
Net Rating +18.2 +21.0
In 40 minutes of clutch time, Irving has scored a league-best 65 points on 24-of-39 shooting (61.5 percent), to go along with 10 assists. Maybe most remarkable: Irving hasn’t committed a single turnover in that span. He has scored 34 points in the paint and drawn 11 fouls that have allowed him to go 13-for-16 at the charity stripe, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
For much of the 2016-17 season, Thomas was on pace to set a new NBA record for scoring average in the fourth quarter. Maybe in part due to his ailing hip, Thomas faded slightly late in the regular season, but he still finished at 9.8 fourth-quarter points per game. If not for league MVP Russell Westbrook, that would have been best mark in the two decades since the league began tracking quarterly scoring; Westbrook finished the season averaging 10.0 points per game in the fourth.
Irving isn’t scoring quite as much as Thomas or Westbrook. He’s averaging 7.3 points per game in the fourth this year, the fourth-best mark in the league, but he’s doing it in fewer minutes than Thomas did (Irving is averaging only 7.3 fourth-quarter minutes per game). And it’s when he’s scoring: Irving’s production is coming largely in the final five minutes, especially in close games.
To reinforce just how good Irving has been in the clutch, ESPN Stats & Information data indicate that Irving’s clutch-time PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is a staggering 73.6. The closest player (among qualifiers with at least 25 minutes per game) is his former Cleveland teammate LeBron James, who owns a clutch PER of 46.0.
Irving is currently on a pace to obliterate the league’s best clutch-time PER.
Best PER in Clutch (last 20 years)
In 40 minutes of “clutch time” this season, Kyrie Irving has 65 points on 24-of-39 shooting, 10 assists and zero turnovers. Irving’s clutch-time PER is currently 73.6, which would be by far the best of any player over the past 20 years.
SEASON PLAYER PER
2009-10 LeBron James 59.3
2008-09 LeBron James 54.1
2016-17 Russell Westbrook 53.1
2007-08 LeBron James 46.6
Zoom outside of clutch time and Irving’s overall fourth-quarter play becomes even more remarkable.
For the season, Irving is averaging 1.055 points per play, which ranks in the 79th percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data. In the fourth quarter, that number spikes to 1.158 points per play and it jumps again to 1.235 points per play in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
For the sake of comparison, Thomas averaged 1.125 points per play last season, which ranked him in the 97th percentile among all NBA players, per Synergy data. Thomas averaged 1.198 points per play in the fourth quarter last year and 1.223 points per play in the final five minutes.
Which is to say their production is quite similar. Thomas’ efforts might still be more impressive, because he was seemingly Boston’s only playmaker last season and teams couldn’t shut him down. Irving has received some late-game help, even from the likes of young teammates such as second-year swingman Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.
But that game against the Hawks showed Irving isn’t afraid to go 1-on-5 versus the opposition when his team really needs points. He takes his game to another level in the fourth quarter, and it has left even opposing crowds chanting “MVP!” at him late in games.
Kyrie Irving has been the perfect point guard for Brad Stevens’ playcalling this season. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has shown trust in Irving, who said his faith in Stevens’ playcalling makes it easier for him to thrive late in games.
“There’s open dialogue, but we prepare for it. He understands the talent that I have at that point, especially in the fourth quarter, but I also understand his brilliant mind,” Irving said. “When we’re preparing and going through walk-through or simulated situations, it’s kinda easy to go off of one another. I’m able to see the reads and what’s going to happen.
“Then he makes the playcalls and what he sees out there, and we’re just continuously building that trust in one another, so it’s pretty easy.”
Irving said, ultimately, he simply does what Stevens is asking from the co-pilot seat.
“Ain’t too much trading [thoughts]. He’s the man,” Irving said. “I just try to soak up as much knowledge as possible, being in the passenger’s seat. It’s like having a driving school teacher and he’s driving the whole time and he’s putting you in the driving seat sometimes and you’re able to see the road. You’re able to bounce ideas sometimes and have that kind of connection. It’s pretty awesome. He does most of the teaching. I’m mostly listening, just taking in as much knowledge as I can.”
Apprised of Irving’s comments, Stevens said that in the aftermath of losing Gordon Hayward to injury, and given Boston’s general struggles to generate consistent offense, he simplified the playbook. There are fewer 3-point turns and more trips on the freeway to let Irving experience the open road.
“Obviously, we had a whole kind of group of things that we were going to go to or had planned on going to the first week of the season, with him and Gordon and Al [Horford], really, in particular spots,” Stevens said. “We gotta make small tweaks to that, obviously, just trying to keep it as simple and spaced as possible.
“[Irving is] so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room. Maybe it’s finding a matchup, maybe it’s creating a two-man game with Al. And it really just kinda depends on what he feels and what we’ve seen their defense have a tendency to do.”
It hasn’t mattered what opposing defenses have thrown at Irving; he has found a way to dominate, especially when it matters most.