Kyrie Irving failed Mavericks when they needed him most, but Celtics had a lot to do with that



The Dallas Mavericks, and specifically Kyrie Irving, had a pretty magical 2023-24 season, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that just because they ran into a basketball buzzsaw named the Boston Celtics, who took out Dallas in five games to seal the 2024 NBA championship on Monday. 

When you end on a sour note, the analysis tends to be even more sour than it is for those who never made it far enough to be judged in the first place. Let’s keep that in mind while also acknowledging that this was, indeed, one hell of a sour ending for Irving, who capped what was a largely miserable showing in the Finals with a 15-point, 5-of-16 dud in the finale. 

After recognizing what a terrific season Irving and the Mavericks had, this Finals letdown notwithstanding, the next thing we’re going to do is credit the Celtics for the major part they played in Irving’s poor series. This was not a case of a superstar player shrinking from the moment, though you’ll surely hear plenty of that talk. Pay it no mind. Irving played poorly in this series for one reason and one reason only: because Boston made him play poorly. 

Prior to the series, Jrue Holiday said the only way to guard Kyrie was to “pray” — which speaks to both the reverence Irving’s magical skillset commands even among the highest ranking of peers, and the humility of one of the nastiest defenders the NBA has ever seen to suggest that he was, or is, somehow powerless to stop Irving sans divine intervention. 

That’s nice of him to say and all, but Holiday is every bit as great a defender as Irving is with the ball in his hands. In fact, if we’re going to limit our analysis to the admittedly narrow scope of this one series, Holiday is better at what he does than Irving is at what he does. You saw it on numerous occasions — Irving getting into his bag and coming up with nothing as Holiday smothered him out like the last embers of a campfire. 

There’s no shame in being rendered effectively helpless against the defense of Holiday, it’s just that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen this happen to Irving, who has spent his career dribbling his way out of straight jackets. It was truly shocking to see him this bottled up with no way out. 

That said, we can’t totally credit the Celtics for Irving’s poor play. Yes, Holiday is a beast, and every other defender that switched onto Irving was damn near as vicious, but Irving himself admitted than the Boston crowd, which became increasingly vocal with the “Kyrie sucks” chants as the series went on, got into his head some. 

In the two games played in Dallas in this series, Irving averaged 28 points on 50% shooting. In the three games in Boston, he averaged 14 points on 34% shooting. He was terrible when the Mavericks needed nothing short of his best, and Holiday’s pressure notwithstanding, he had enough open looks to flip that calculus. 

In the first two games, he couldn’t buy a pull-up jumper. His typically crafty finishes were sliding awry. he shot 27% from 3 for the series and even that number is propped up by a 4-for-6 line in Game 3. He made just 4 of 23 3s in the other four games, and again, many of them were wide open. 

Pressure builds over time, and by the end, Irving was noticeably pressing. All series long he looked a bit frantic with his handle as he found himself corralled at what are typically points of advantage. When that happens, it carries over. Even comfortable shots become uncomfortable, like a quarterback who’s been pressured all game finally getting a clean pocket from which to throw. By then, he’s too jumpy to just flip the calm switch. Boston, both the team and city, had him rattled. 

And ultimately, Dallas simply didn’t have the margin for error to withstand this kind of performance from its second-best player. Boston had too many weapons, too much of a depth advantage. If Dallas had any kind of chance in this series — which, in hindsight, it probably didn’t — it started with Irving playing huge. He and Luka Doncic needed to be so great that Dallas could absorb the deficits it was always going to incur as you went further down the rosters. 

Luka was not great, but he at least provided productivity in volume. Kyrie was mostly dismal. That’s not a knock in the way that it sounds. It just is what it is. The Celtics were too much for him, and in turn, for the Mavericks. 





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