Before I say anything, I would like to send a personal and heartfelt thank-you to the National Basketball Association for scheduling the Celtics to a 12:30p.m. tip-off. I am eager to make it to bed by 6:00p.m. tonight for the first time in weeks. This was a pleasant reward for soldering through the past week-and-a-half of 10:00/10:30p.m. start times.
In a game that featured 249 combined points, it was Kyrie Irving's well-known clutch defense that sealed the Celtics' win over the Hawks.
The Celtics, up by 25 at one point, squandered another second-half lead and had to outscore the Hawks 15-8 over the last six minutes in order to avoid a collapse that likely would've brought out the annoying "does this team play with effort?" questions, yet again.
As the case has been for most of the season with this team, consistency is not a strong suit, and after jumping out to a 103-78 lead with 3:12 to play in the third, the Hawks went on a 34-9 to tie the game at 1:12 with 5:53 to play in the final frame.
This blown lead really had nothing else we hadn't seen from them before. They went ice cold from the floor, failed to generate opportunities at the rim, and didn't play stellar defense either.
Hustle Kyrie is the purveyor of defense
What has become increasingly more common as this year has gone on, though, is Kyrie making brilliant hustle plays in critical moments. This season, he's averaging career-highs in rebounds per game (5.1), blocks per game (0.5), tying his career-highs in plus-minus (5.6) and steals per game (1.5). He had a near-triple-double today with nine assists and 11 boards, and posted 30 points and 10+ rebounds for the second straight game.
Marcus Morris addressed this a week or so ago when he said Kyrie is a "great leader," but it's really becoming evident that he means business when it comes to setting an example. His "hustle stats" are nearing career-highs across the board, and even the advanced stats are in his favor.
He has a positive defensive box plus-minus for the first time in his career (0.3), which isn't fantastic but he's improved quite a bit. His defensive win shares are 2.5, which is 0.2 off his career-high from last year.
This team is so much more pleasant to watch when everyone's crashing the boards, getting ahead in transition, and knocking down the open shot. With the exception of a 10-minute stretch during the third and fourth quarters today, that's largely the reason they played so well. It's not easy to put up 129 points, not to mention playing a quarter of ice-cold offense, too.