It all combined to leave Celtics guard, Kyrie Irving searching for a feeling of basketball happiness that he admitted during this year’s media day was lacking through much of his first year in Boston despite it being the best statistical season of his career.
WALTHAM – Kyrie Irving closed out Tuesday’s practice like he has so many games – and even one NBA Finals – in his career.
Engaged in a 40-minute battle of round-robin, one-on-one with Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum following the hour-long Celtics team workout, Irving knew the contest was winding down and went for the kill. First, was a basket on Smart. Then it was Rozier’s turn to feel what so many players trying to contain Irving in crunch time have felt in the past.
Irving took a pass from Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen posting at the top of the key with Rozier on his back, dribbled to his left, jab stepped toward the paint, stepped back with one pump fake, then elevated into a fadeaway off the glass to punctuate the competition.
“It’s great,” Irving said of the individual challenges. “It keeps my spirits high because now I know that when I leave my house in the morning I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. Tussling with Terry, tussling with Marcus, going against JT with some length.
“For me, I’ve seen so many bodies on defense – guys that are bigger, guys that are faster. I try to utilize these guys, going against their energy, then it’s pretty seamless going into the game.”
The one-on-ones are part of a routine that Irving has adopted this year that goes beyond the pregame shooting and stretches that everyone sees, and even the scrimmage work that media occasionally gets a fleeting glimpse at during an official practice.
“We’re in here every day,” he reminded, “you (the media) are not.”
While Irving did many of the same things in his first year in Boston, every indication is that he is doing those things more deliberately, more free, and healthier, this time around. A year ago, he repeatedly noted the team’s brutal early season schedule – which he blamed on the league office and the London trip in early January – and the need to rest his body whenever possible. In the back of his mind was always the recurring knee pain and the surgery that it would eventually require. Then there were the lingering responsibilities from his “Uncle Drew” movie, which he shot the previous summer and would be required to promote at season’s end.
It all combined to leave him searching for a feeling of basketball happiness that he admitted during this year’s media day was lacking through much of his first year in Boston despite it being the best statistical season of his career.
He said coming into this season his goals were to be happier on the court and with the game, less concerned with anyone’s perception of him or worried about what he considered trap questions from the media, and – likely most of all – healthy and prepared for each day of the grind so he could embrace it instead of dreading it.
“My off days,” he said on Tuesday, “even if I don’t come into the gym, they’re dedicated to five or six hours a day of just getting recovery and doing everything I can. I have a great team around me as well as the training staff here. So anything I can do to get that edge, to make sure that I’m fresh. Thinking about the things I have to do now – even compared to a year ago – my off days are no longer off days. They are dedicated to making sure I’m committed.
That commitment is paying off for the five-time All-Star, who enters Wednesday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns at TD Garden averaging 22.7 points in just 31.7 minutes per game. His 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game are both career highs. His overall shooting percent (48.1 percent) and 3-point percentage (40.0) are well above his career averages (46.3 percent, and 38.8 percent, respectively).
“It’s an everyday job,” he said he’s come to realize. “Being a leader, being a great professional, working at your craft, is an everyday job. And it’s well worth it. All I’m thinking in the back of my head when I’m out there in the game is that I don’t want to be the guy that people are looking at, if you run down (the court) six or seven times, and then he gets tired. The sixth or seventh time, most guys don’t want to get back on defense. They don’t want to set that screen. They don’t want to do the little things again.
“For me, I just try to put that in the back of my mind when I’m working out. Like, this is what I’m pushing for when I’m in the game, and obviously, working toward the end of the season.”
Scott Souza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Souza.