What I’m Hearing: HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy spoke with a handful of NBA players and polled them on who they think will win the title this year. Survey says!
After all of Boston point guard Kyrie Irving’s missives about leadership and performance this season — and self-admitted missteps along the way — he delivered in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Celtics should be thrilled because their playoff success depends on Irving’s.
Irving was the best player on the court in the Celtics’ 4-0 series sweep of the Indiana Pacers, concluding with Boston’s 110-106 victory in Game 4 on Sunday. In this sweep, the games were close, the series was not.
This was the moment Irving had been waiting for — his first playoff series with the Celtics since he was injured last season — and if he wasn’t always able to express that perfectly with words, he expressed it with play.
Irving averaged 22.5 points and 7.8 assists and shot 42.3 percent on three-pointers and 88.2 percent from the foul line. He made timely shots, took over at times and knew when to let his teammates handle the scoring.
MORE FROM THE NBA PLAYOFFS
In the fourth quarter, Irving, one of the NBA’s best shot-makers, averaged six points and shot 60 percent on threes. It was a microcosm of the Celtics’ performance in the fourth quarter, when they outscored the Pacers by 23. In a series that saw the four games determined by 10 points or less, the absence of injured Pacers star Victor Oladipo was magnified with the game on the line.
Sunday wasn’t Irving’s best performance: 14 points on 4-for-13 shooting. But he remained involved with his passing and defense and had just two turnovers. And he was part of an 18-5 fourth-quarter run that decided the game and recognized other players were better offensively. Seven Celtics scored in double figures, led by Gordon Hayward’s 20 points. Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum added 18.
When the Celtics play like that and utilize their depth without letting individual agendas interfere with team success, it reveals why many were bullish on the Celtics. The first-round success is why the Celtics are still considered a Finals-caliber team. They started the season with Finals expectations but were never consistent enough to finish better than 49-33. The Pacers series alleviated concerns for now.
Still, Boston has a difficult road to the Finals; the four seed is burdened with peril.
Likely, the Celtics will face top-seeded Milwaukee in the conference semifinals. As impressive as the Celtics were against Indiana, the Bucks have been more impressive with three easy victories against Detroit. They can close out the series in Game 4 on Monday.
Milwaukee presents a far greater challenge. It finished with the best record in the league and has a top-five offense and defense led by MVP and defensive player-of-the-year candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And Irving will have a more difficult time against Bucks point guard Eric Bledsoe.
But this is what Irving brings to the playoffs: experience, success and clutch performances. He is 43-13 in playoff games and has produced in the biggest moments of the Finals — 41 points against Golden State in a must-win Game 5 and the championship-clinching three-pointer in Game 7 against the Warriors in 2016.
This is what Irving wanted — he got out of Cleveland to lead a team — and now we get to see what he can do with the stakes higher against a better team. If the first round was an indication, the conference semifinals should be fantastic.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt