You know what? On second thought, Kyrie Irving does feel pretty comfortable on the court at the MECCA.
In the hours before the Boston Celtics’ nationally televised Thursday night road game against the Milwaukee Bucks, which was being played at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena — formerly known as the MECCA, where the Bucks played for 20 years before moving to their current digs at the BMO Harris Bradley Center — the All-Star point guard had expressed some concerns about the retro-style playing surface. (Contrary to Irving’s belief, though, the Bucks were not asking the Celtics to play on a decades-old court; it was a brand new floor painted to look like the Robert Indiana-designed classic.) Once the contest tipped off, though, Irving seemed right at home on the road — and next to his new running buddy, Al Horford.
Irving put on a show for the 11,046 in attendance in the cozy old gym and all those watching at home, using his snare-drum-tight handle, peerless footwork and crafty touch around the rim to put up 24 points on 10-for-18 shooting in 34 1/2 minutes of floor time, including a couple of beautiful finishes over and around the county-covering reach of Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo:
Irving also made his presence felt as a playmaker, both as a drive-and-kick facilitator and a ball-mover on the perimeter. He hooked up with Horford several times in the second half, setting up the big man for wide-open looks that helped stretch out the Milwaukee defense past its breaking point:
The four-time All-Star took that service in stride and made the most of it, pouring in a team-high 27 points on 11-for-14 shooting to go with nine rebounds and four assists to help lead the Celtics to an impressive 96-89 win on the road. Boston has now won three straight after opening the season with back-to-back losses following the brutal injury to Gordon Hayward, in the process delivering the Bucks a receipt for Milwaukee’s win on the C’s home court last week.
Horford balanced his stellar offensive game with strong work on the defensive end, where he often served as the Celtics’ top option to slow down Antetokounmpo in the half-court.
Granted, there’s only so much you can really stop “The Greek Freak” these days. He entered Thursday averaging an NBA-best 36.8 points per game, shooting an absurd 65.9 percent from the floor on 22 field-goal attempts per game while also pulling down 10.8 rebounds, dishing 5.3 assists and snaring 2.3 steals per game in an early-season run that’s garnered plenty of MVP buzz.
But thanks to yeoman’s work from the likes of Horford and burly rookies Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye, committed help from Boston’s guards (who bumped Antetokounmpo on his way through sets and shaded in his direction when he got the ball moving toward the basket), and a near-ultimate sacrifice from Aron Baynes, the Celtics were able to put a gang of bodies between Giannis and the rim, limiting (well, “limiting”) him to 28 points on 10-for-21 shooting, 10 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block in 41 1/2 minutes of work.
The Celtics were able to survive Giannis’ productivity by keeping the Bucks off the line (just 14 free-throw attempts, with Giannis’ teammates going 2-for-7 collectively) and limiting Milwaukee’s transition attack, giving up only 11 fast-break points and holding the Bucks’ offensive efficiency in transition (an average of 95.5 points per 100 plays on Thursday, per Ben Falk’s transition stats at Cleaning the Glass) well below their season average (127.3 points per 100 transition plays).
Despite Boston’s successful efforts to keep Giannis contained and his teammates from providing enough supplementary support to pick up the win, the Bucks held a seven-point lead after a big Antetokounmpo dunk with 5:45 left in the third quarter. But the Celtics went on a 15-8 run to close the quarter, with Horford knocking in a pair of 3-pointers and a buzzer-beating alley-oop layup off an inbounds feed from Irving with less than a second left on the clock, to send Boston into the fourth up 72-69.
The Bucks wouldn’t lead again, with key reserve guards Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart (back after missing two game with a left ankle sprain) pushed the lead to 12 with 6:33 left in regulation. Milwaukee would make one last closing kick, getting within five on a reverse layup by reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon with just under four minutes to go. On the next two Boston trips, though, Irving went into his bag.
First, he freezed Antetokounmpo with a hesitation move before gaining the lane and lofting a teardrop over both Giannis and center John Henson. Then, he made a well-timed cut through the paint, catching the Bucks napping and grabbing a feed from Horford for another touch, arcing finish over Giannis to push the lead back to nine, and out of reach of even a team as long-limbed as the Bucks, giving Boston a strong road win and — perhaps most notably, and hearteningly for Celtics fans — an indication that the newly arrived Irving might be moving faster than expected in the process of developing chemistry with Horford and the rest of his new squad.
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