There is a shopping list of things Kyrie Irving can do on the court that separate him from other guards in the NBA. To James Harden, it’s not his play that separates him from the other guards. He believes Irving’s killer mentality is what sets him apart.
“He’s a different breed. He has that killer mentality to go out there and try to destroy the opponent,” Harden said after the Nets win against the Celtics on Thursday. “That is something you want on your team at all times. Obviously tonight, he played great. He had 40 but he does that every single game. Sometimes he misses shots while most of the time he makes them but, that mentality is what sets him apart from a lot of guys in this league.”
Rust from the All-Star break did not show but that killer mentality did as Irving put on a box office show against the Celtics Thursday pouring in a game-high 40 points along with eight rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes with MVP chants echoing around the mostly empty Barclays Center. The Nets All-Star guard has scored 77 points in his two games against Boston, which is tied for the fifth-most points by a player in his first two meetings against his former team, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“Yeah but I feel like that about Kai every single night,” Harden said on Irving’s 40-point performance Thursday. Irving was caught articulating that killer attitude at the game’s end Thursday night.
Facts speak that into existence. Irving is no stranger to 40-point games as he’s scored 40+ points five times in his two-year tenure as a Net. All the other Nets have combined for only four 40 pieces during that span and is tied for third all-time with Bernard King in the Nets history books. He only trails John Williamson, who had eight, and Vince Carter, who sits on the top with 17.
When the game was on the line, Irving delivered. The Nets All-Star guard led Brooklyn’s 13-3 run to close out the win, scoring eight points.
“When it gets to that quarter and its winning time, I’ve always said it throughout my career - I enjoy it more than anything else,” Irving said on playing in the fourth quarter. “My thing is just having a sustained effort throughout the whole game and being able to play the fourth quarter comfortably.”
Statistically, Harden is the Nets' top talent in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes). Brooklyn is 11-3 since he joined the team, Irving, of course, has a long history of stepping up when the game is on the line including what is arguably the most clutch shot in recent NBA history, the dagger in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals that won Cleveland its only NBA title.
While Harden is viewed as the Nets' main man since Kevin Durant went down with a left strained hamstring, Irving is having a career year that is one for the history books.
Irving has only played in seven games where he didn’t score 25+ points. In other words, he has 20 games with 20+ points and eight games with 30+ points. He is currently averaging 27.7 points, which ranks ninth in the league and is a career-high, to go along with 5.9 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.1 steals in 35.5 minutes per game. In fact, the New Jersey product leads the NBA in offensive rating this season at 121.8. He also ranks fifth in ISO points per game at 4.7 points.
When it comes to shooting percentages, Irving continues to trend upwards as each game goes in the books. Irving is averaging career-highs in field goal percentage (51.6 percent), three-point percentage (42 percent), and effective field goal percentage (59 percent). Aside from shooting a rising percentage from deep, Irving is averaging 3.0 threes per game, which is also a career-high. He’s just short of a 50/40/90 shooting line, something only eight players, including a teammate, Durant, and his coach Steve Nash, have accomplished.
Diving a little deeper into Irving’s shooting, you get a deeper appreciation of what he’s done. In the mid-range, he’s shooting an electric 52 percent, which is the fifth-best in the league in that category. There is no question he is crafty at the rim and that craftiness is very productive. He is shooting 56 percent in the paint, which ranks third in the league and always leaves his teammates and others in disbelief.
“He’s just different. I don’t know how he scores the ball in the paint like that with the bigs down there,” Bruce Brown said Friday. “When he did the power layup with the left around [Daniel] Theis, how did he even do that. He just scores so effortlessly. A great teammate and I’m glad to be playing with him and not defending him anymore.”
Beyond being one of the best in the business in the paint, Irving is also in the top four on pull-up attempts - 49 percent - which is the second-highest in the league. He’s averaging 10.4 points per game in that category.
While the case can be made for Irving to join Harden in the MVP discussions, the 28-year-old told reporters back in December how playing “hero basketball” and striving for individual accolades doesn’t interest him anymore.
“It’s just the right time, the right situation, the right environment,” Irving said. “As a young player, you think that scoring a bunch of points, doing a bunch of things, getting a bunch of accolades are great. I definitely was going after those things, and now, I really don’t care for any of those individual accolades or goals. It doesn’t bother me.
“It’s been a long journey to get here and to be able to master this craft and to learn that it’s not just about ‘hero’ basketball. It’s about how great the team is,” Irving said. “I got caught up in that in my career a few times, just trying to play ‘hero’ basketball, where the team success is really going to dictate how great you are as an individual and how great you play a role.
“At this moment, I’m enjoying that, and I’m embracing it, not really doing too much talking. It’s just about the actions. Let’s go out there and throw the ball in the air, and see who’s the best of the best. I’m here to prove that every night with a great team alongside. It gives me confidence. We look forward to that challenge of just letting our game do the talking and let everybody else talk externally.”
Irving added how the only accolade he is striving for is his second ring and to deliver the elusive first championship for Brooklyn - the Nets’ ultimate goal.
“I’m validated culturally, that’s all that matters. I don’t need all-NBA, I don’t need the MVP. I just want the championship with a great team,” Irving said. “I can look back in history and say, ‘We did it our way, and we had fun doing it.’ I’m in Year 10. All I want to do is enjoy every single day playing basketball and coming in to work.”