Brad Stevens’s reputation for drawing up brilliant after-timeout plays existed long before Kyrie Irving was an O on his clipboard. Irving, similarly, made his name as a clutch fourth-quarter player before he was in green and white. So when Boston failed to get a good look from the final possession in its 98-97 loss to Milwaukee on Thursday night, in Irving’s first game back after a two-game absence, it was doubly confounding. There were 3.5 seconds left on the clock when Marcus Smart lined up to inbound the ball. Irving set a screen on the weak side for Marcus Morris, who was en route to the basket for a lob, but Khris Middleton wasn’t fazed and hung with Morris. Irving rushed to receive the ball above the break instead, drove into a clogged lane, and lofted an attempt that never really had a chance.
“We were looking for Morris off of Kyrie’s down screen,” Smart told reporters after the game. “Kyrie set a great back-screen and Morris fell down. [...] Once that play was done, the second option was for Kyrie.”
The replay paints Irving as almost heroic—breaking free at the last moment to get a final possession going. Live, it was messy—another forced shot from a player who had been forcing them all game. At the half, Irving’s worst of the season, he had taken 10 shots and had only two points to show for it. In a tale of two Irvings, this was the overbearingly ball-dominant one. (He finished the half with one assist.)
The second half showed more of Irving’s good side, the kind of play that earned him a sixth All-Star nod last week. He scored 10 of his 22 points in the fourth to keep up with the Bucks, with the last two coming on a layup to bring the Celtics within one before the final possession. But despite Irving’s late rally, he wasn’t Boston’s player of the game. Al Horford continued his silent campaign for the most valuable Celtic, finishing with 21 points, 17 rebounds, five assists, two steals, and three blocks. He was present everywhere on the court while Stevens’s other two maximum-contract players were elsewhere: Irving someplace in his own head and Gordon Hayward out with a sprained ankle.
Horford stands out the least when Boston is at its best. If Irving’s 3s are hitting, or Jayson Tatum’s one-legged fadeaway is making an appearance, Horford will take his stat line—let’s say a very Horford 13 points, seven rebounds, and four assists—at the end of the night, and direct the reporter scrum to his teammates’ lockers on the way out. His rebounding, defending, and other “glue guy” qualities are more thankless (unless he’s stopping someone like Joel Embiid). He is the kale in a smoothie—acknowledged, applauded, paid extra for, but never what you want as the main flavor. Horford’s not Boston’s offense; he’s what helps Boston’s offense go. His might be the one established role on the team, while the rest of the roster tries to balance the group that led last year’s Eastern Conference finals run (Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier) with this year’s healthy options (Irving and Hayward).
“We have a bunch of young men in our locker room who feel they’re capable of doing a lot more than they’re doing,” Irving told Rachel Nichols in an interview on Wednesday. Overall, the Celtics don’t seem sure what they’re capable of doing. Heading into the All-Star break, Boston dropped two straight against the Lakers and the Clippers only to lose Irving to a knee injury and then beat the Sixers and the Pistons. The Celtics fall to fifth in the East following Thursday’s loss. From a box score perspective, they clung to the best team in the conference and limited Milwaukee (and its MVP front-runner) to its fifth-lowest point total of the Mike Budenholzer era. Still, the ending felt representative of how things have gone for Boston to this point in the season: seemingly so close to finding real footing only to stumble and force a contested shot when it matters.