By just about any measure, Kyrie Irving is having the best season of his career. His scoring is down slightly compared to years past, but the six-time All-Star has never averaged more assists, rebounds and steals per game.
The jump in assists might the most impressive of the three. While he's long had the potential to be a plus-passer, Irving has always had more of a score-first mentatility. This season, however, he's striking the perfect balance between looking for his own shot and using the threat of his scoring to create easy opportunities for his teammates.
There was one possession in Thursday's matchup between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers that showed why that makes him a much scarier player.
It came in the final two minutes of a one possession game. Following a missed shot from Kyle Kuzma, Irving dribbled the ball up court and immediately put pressure on the Lakers by running a pick-and-roll with Marcus Smart on the left wing, followed by one with Al Horford at the top of the perimeter.
The Lakers chose to switch both of those pick-and-rolls, going from Rajon Rondo guarding Irving to Kuzma and then JaVale McGee.
McGee is at his most effective as a defender when he's in the paint, where he can use his athleticism and long arms to protect the rim, but he had to extend himself all the way out to the 3-point line to prevent Irving from pulling-up (as he did a couple of possessions prior) or passing it to Horford on the pick-and-pop.
Those Irving-Horford pick-and-pops have become a staple in Boston's late game offence because of how difficult it is for opposing centres to defend.
So when Irving blew by McGee off the dribble, there was nobody standing directly between him and the basket.
Irving did, however, have two defenders chasing him down in Kuzma and McGee. LeBron James also rotated over from the strong side, leaving his assignment in the corner to provide some resistance at the rim.
Whereas Irving might have settled for a contested layup in the past, he instead passed it out to Marcus Morris.
Irving has been a far more willing passer all season long, with him kicking it out on more than a third of his drives, a sizeable increase from previous seasons.
It wasn't even an accurate pass from Irving, but it didn't matter. Morris had more than enough time to gather himself and get off a clean look before McGee could contest his shot because of how much attention Irving drew on his drive.
Morris knocked down the wide open 3-pointer, giving Irving his eighth assist of the game and the Celtics a 124-118 lead with 1:24 remaining.
Here's the sequence from start to finish:
Boston wasn't able to maintain that lead - Rajon Rondo helped the Lakers get a much-needed win by knocking down his first career buzzer-beater, a fitting end in his return to a place he considers home - but the Celtics usually walk away as winners when the going gets tough thanks in large part to Irving's playmaking.
According to NBA.com, Irving trails only James Harden in total points scored in the final five minutes of a five-point game this season, doing so with incredible shooting splits of .541/.379/.920. He also leads the league with 26 clutch assists. The only other time he's finished in the top 10 of that category was 2013-14, the season before LeBron returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That has translated into the Celtics winning 15 of the 26 games Irving has played in that have gone down to the wire. Furthermore, his offensive rating in crunch time is 136.1, the highest in the league.
The scoring has always been there for Irving in those situations, but it's the passing that has helped take his game to another level of superstardom.
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