Kyrie Irving Drops 30 Points as Celtics Beat Trae Young, Hawks 129-120

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2019

Boston Celtics' Kyrie Irving, left, drives past Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Boston Celtics completed a season sweep of the Atlanta Hawks with a 129-120 victory Saturday at TD Garden. 

Returning home after a 25-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday has helped the Celtics get back on track. They defeated a good Sacramento Kings team Thursday and halted the Hawks' two-game winning streak. 

This victory didn't come easy after the Hawks erased a 25-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving led a balanced offensive attack for Boston with 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. 

Jaylen Brown scored 23 off the bench, including the go-ahead three after Atlanta evened the score at 112. Marcus Morris had his second consecutive double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.

              

Lackadaisical Defense Will Ruin Celtics' Title Hopes

There have been numerous stories written this season about why the Celtics haven't played up to the level expected of them following last year's run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. 

USA Today's Nate Scott attempted to break down the blame into percentages, with the two biggest culprits being "too many young guys getting a taste last year" (40 percent), an improved Eastern Conference (20 percent) and Irving (17 percent). 

Here's what Scott wrote about Boston's roster being overcrowded following the young players' succeeding last season:

"There just aren't enough shots to go around. Jayson Tatum went from being the team's primary scorer to someone who's trying to get shots off when he can. Jaylen Brown is in a funk, as is Terry Rozier. Marcus Smart, Rozier, Brown, Ojeleye have all seen minutes go down this year, as well as shots.

"This was always going to be a problem. That crew rightfully will feel that they earned the right to be leaders for this franchise."

One thing Scott didn't factor in was the Celtics appearing to have no interest in playing defense. This goes beyond just being incapable of stopping the opposition. They returned virtually the same roster from last season that led the NBA in defensive efficiency. 

Their stats from this season don't indicate a significant drop-off on defense. They entered Saturday ranked seventh in points allowed per game (107.3) and fifth in efficiency (107.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). 

Over the past 10 games, Boston has given up at least 100 points seven times. Saturday marked the first time since March 5 an opponent shot under 48 percent from the field. 

The Hawks are the latest team to exploit Boston's lack of size with a 19-11 advantage in offensive rebounds.

A cruel irony to the Celtics appearing to be lazy on defense is Irving called it out as a league-wide problem back in November. 

If the Celtics want to make a deep playoff run relying solely on offense, they could be going home early. Irving has been their only consistent scorer this season. 

The top of the Eastern Conference is stacked with teams capable of scoring a lot of points in a flash. The Toronto Raptors have 12 players who average at least seven points per game. Only the Golden State Warriors average more points per game than the Milwaukee Bucks (117.6). 

Even the Philadelphia 76ers, who have gone 0-3 against their Atlantic Division rival this season, have one of the most dynamic scoring units with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, JJ Redick, Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler. 

Playing defense in the NBA is often as much about effort as it is talent. Taking the extra step to get in the face of an opponent, potentially forcing a bad pass, can go a long way toward keeping the ball out of the basket. 

When Young launches a three from just inside the logo, Marcus Morris not even trying to contest the shot is a bad look for the Celtics. 

The Celtics are seemingly incapable of closing teams out. The Hawks tied the score at 112 midway through the fourth quarter thanks to a 34-9 run that took just under eight minutes. 

Head coach Brad Stevens has a problem with his team that isn't going away. Unless he finds a way to fix it in the next month, the Celtics will be looking at an early playoff exit and an offseason of uncertainty. 

                       

What's Next?

The Hawks will fly south to take on the Orlando Magic at the Amway Center Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. The Celtics will wrap up their three-game homestand Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET with a marquee intra-conference showdown against the Denver Nuggets.

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