It wasn’t that Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum were perfect for the Boston Celtics. It wasn’t like they never missed a shot, or came up short on a rebound, or committed a foul.
But against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday – a contest where the Hornets trailed by 16 at the half but still managed to cut the deficit to one by the start of the fourth quarter – Irving and Tatum were perfect when they needed to be, squashing Charlotte’s comeback bid and helping Boston pull away to a 102-91 victory.
Now, saying the two former Duke stars, one an MVP candidate and the other a rookie sensation, weren’t perfect does not mean they weren’t terrific. Irving flashed the creativity and tenacity on offense that has led to his name in chatter for the NBA’s best players. He finished with a team-high 21 points, but they poured in a different way each time: tough layups, deep 3-pointers and the improvised midrange shots when nothing else was available.
It’s understandable that he’s averaging almost 25 points on one of the league’s best teams.
“When we’re running that pick-and-roll,” Irving said, “it’s pretty effective when I’m able to get downhill, create some opportunities and get my teammates involved.”
As for Tatum, he showcased the explosiveness and savviness that made him the No. 3 overall selection in this year’s NBA draft. Two plays in particular stood out.
The first will read as a simple layup in the second quarter, but in reality Tatum made the difficult look effortless. He wove through the Hornets defense, leaving players stuck watching from behind as if they were knee-deep in mud. Then once into the paint, he side-stepped another defender at the last instance, and easily kissed the ball off the glass for the score.
“The patience that he has,” Irving said of Tatum, “understanding what we’re trying to accomplish and knowing that when the game has to slow down —the spots that he needs to be in, the spots that he can take advantage of —and being able to have the confidence to be put in that position.”
The second came in the fourth quarter, with the Celtics desperately needing buckets to fend off a desperate Hornets comeback. Every time Boston got a small lead, Charlotte would answer with a basket of its own. Eventually, it was an alley-oop dunk from Tatum – and another dunk later of his own creation – that helped swing the momentum the Celtics’ way for good.
And all that coming after a relatively mundane third quarter for him, where the Celtics as a whole shot just 30 percent.
“It’s really good for a young guy and it’s really good for anybody,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Tatum’s ability to bounce back after a poor quarter, “but it’s a hard thing to do.”
With about five minutes left in the game, the Hornets trailed by three. From then on, the scoring log reads as such: Irving jump shot, Tatum dunk, Al Horford layup, Tatum free throw, Tatum free throw, Tatum steal and dish to Irving, who hits the step back.
Or in other words, at the most crucial point of the game, those two almost single-handedly spun a three-point lead into an 11-point cushion.
And the win, of course.