Should Celtics’ Shutdown of Warriors Worry LeBron More Than Golden State?

Kyrie Irving hasn’t become a better scorer since he demanded, and received, a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers this past summer.

In the few short months since he swapped Quicken Loans Arena and the shores of Lake Erie for TD Garden, though, Irving may just have become a better basketball player.

That phrase—“better basketball player”—will always be deliberately, frustratingly ambiguous. Take, for instance, Thursday night’s marquee East vs. West showdown between the Golden State Warriors and the Celtics in Boston. Irving, who suffered a minor facial fracture against the Charlotte Hornets last Friday and has been wearing a mask during the Celtics’ games this week, wasn’t prolific against the Warriors. He scored 16 points and had an off-night shooting, sinking four of 16 from the field.

And yet the Celtics won—held the Warriors to 88 points, ended the NBA Champions’ own seven-game winning streak, kept Stephen Curry quiet and managed to pretty much shut down the Warriors’ backcourt by limiting Klay Thompson to 13 points. Okay, so Kevin Durant had a good night but you’re never going to keep all of the Warriors’ starters quiet, even if you’re statistically the NBA’s best defensive team.

And Irving? He was clutch. He threw off the mask halfway through the game—to "see better," he told Masslive.com after the final buzzer. When the Celtics needed their All-Star point guard to zone in on the basket and out of distractions, he delivered. He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter, including two free throws in the final 14 seconds that gave the Celtics a lead they did not surrender—even if Warriors coach Steve Kerr complained afterwards that they should not have counted.

“I just watched the tape,” Kerr told ESPN’s Chris Haynes. “There was no foul. Tough call.”

It wasn’t all about Irving, of course—which is kind of the point.

“Boston held the Warriors to 33 of 82 shots, and the way they did it was particularly impressive,” Kellen Becoats wrote in Sports Illustrated. “The Celtics were in the Golden State players' shirts from tipoff. Jaylen Brown… was a defensive utility knife, hounding the Warriors' guards and wings to impactful results.”

Being a leader—and that is a large part of why Irving asked for the trade to Boston—doesn’t mean putting up 30 points a night (well, okay, that helps). Brown was the Celtics’ most visible star against the Warriors, scoring a team-high 22 points in addition to those defensive capabilities. Irving’s mere defensive soundness—and the Celtics’ defensive excellence—are markers for how he is leading what we can now fairly safely call the best current team in the NBA.

And that has to make LeBron James mad.