After a knee injury derailed Year 1 in Boston, Kyrie Irving is back to break more ankles. Here’s what we drew up to spotlight why he might just have the best handles in the NBA.
Created with Sketch.
It’s a late October night, and Kyrie Irving is playing with a little extra sizzle, the anticipation growing each time he touches the ball in a nationally televised game in Milwaukee.
And then it happens.
As Irving revs up for a second-quarter drive — three dribbles between his legs, a crossover and another pass through the pins — before launching past Malcolm Brogdon near the paint, you can’t help but wonder if the Bucks guard has the toughest job in the building.
Perched a good distance from the action, Boston Celtics radio play-by-play man Sean Grande might have the second-toughest task: attempting to put Irving’s dazzling displays into words.
“The only thing I can compare it to is that shell game that they run on the JumboTron,” Grande said. “At first it’s going really slow …
“And then it just starts going super fast, and you just have to make a decision.”
That’s a scary proposition for defenders and announcers alike.
With Boston opening the season as the favorites in a LeBron-less East, Irving might be the key to reaching new heights. If these five electrifying moves are any indication, the Celtics should be in good hands — because Irving might just be the best ball handler in the NBA.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens found out one of the secrets to Irving’s dribbling skills the very instant he met him.
“He’s got really strong hands,” Stevens said. “When he shakes your hand, you know it.”
That strength allows Irving to keep the ball on a string, even as defenders repeatedly pry at it. During a game against the Los Angeles Lakers in November, Irving nearly lost control of his dribble when Brandon Ingram slapped it away as Irving tried to get fancy in transition.
The ball rolled free across the floor, and Irving raced to recover, muscling it from big man Brook Lopez near the top of the key.
“I don’t remember what was going on,” Ingram said. “It was a play where we had a defensive breakdown, and he just got through everybody and just messed up our whole defense.”
Best FG% after 5-plus, 10-plus dribbles
With a few dribbles, a recomposed Irving freed himself from a Lopez/Lonzo Ball double team then split Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope before finishing a left-handed layup — much to the delight of teammate Shane Larkin, who spilled off the bench in jubilation.
“He’s literally going horizontally across the court, and he’s tapping [the ball] so guys can’t get it,” Larkin said. “Then when he finally has that opening, he gets back in control, and he makes another move and another move, and he’s at the basket laying it up.
“It’s nothing I’ve seen before, and it’s something that you can’t really teach.”
Stevens’ offense is predicated largely on ball movement, but letting Irving get creative wasn’t the worst strategy last season. Irving shot 55 percent from the field on plays on which he took at least 10 dribbles, best in the NBA among the 31 players with 100 such shots, according to Second Spectrum data.
So what can defenses do when Kyrie cranks up the handles? According to Ingram, there might be only one answer.
“Foul him. Foul him.”
Stevens likes to remind his players to practice only the shots they will actually take during games. While another player might get some grief for throwing up off-balanced, left-handed layups in practice, Stevens knows there’s a method to Irving’s madness.
“He doesn’t practice typical things that other guys practice,” Stevens said. “When he shoots layups as part of a practice opportunity, he will mix in degree of difficulty, but with a purpose.
“Some guys do it, and they miss every single one. Kyrie mixes it in because he knows that he [will] go to that shot again.”
No matter how flashy Irving’s dribble moves are, they’d be worthless if they didn’t lead to buckets — the proverbial million-dollar move with a 10-cent finish. Case in point: After a screen set by Al Horford, Irving sent defender Dennis Schroder skidding past with a behind-the-back move during a matchup in Atlanta last season.
Irving using Horford screens vs. other Celtics
After Horford opened a path, Irving accelerated to split both Schroder and Dewayne Dedmon, but two other Hawks scrambled over, hoping to deny Irving near the basket. Fading off his right foot to create a bit of space against Kent Bazemore, Irving was forced to adjust in midair again when 6-foot-8 Taurean Prince (and his 6-foot-11 wingspan) leapt to contest.
Somehow, Irving still angled the ball high off the glass.
When searching for words to describe a vintage Kyrie dribble move, Grande usually defaults to hoops staccato — stop, start, left, right, spin — all while trying to anticipate what move might come next.
“I watched a lot of tape on Kyrie, and I watched a lot of the moves to see if there were any pattern to them. In many ways, there isn’t. So you close your eyes and think, ‘What is going to paint the picture best for people?’
“You’re just trying to find as many 25-cent, one-syllable words as you can to describe the 28 seconds worth of things he does in a three-second span.”
NBA skills trainer Micah Lancaster was working with Duke’s Nolan Smith in 2011 when Irving, practicing on an adjacent court, took interest in their exercises. Irving signed up for Lancaster’s “I’m Possible” training services the summer before his NBA debut, and Lancaster came away marveling at Irving’s desire to learn skills that challenged him.
“We had this one dribble drill, and Kyrie just couldn’t get the timing down,” Lancaster said. “It probably took him a full hour to get the full set of footwork, but he just kept at it.
“He never got frustrated. He never got mad. He really seemed to enjoy the process. I’ll never forget that.”
When Lancaster watches Irving now, he marvels at his rhythm. Irving’s dribble-step timing is always in order, allowing him to make reactionary moves without losing control. Like a drummer or a ballroom dancer, it’s tough to knock Irving out of rhythm.
Which Indiana Pacers guard Darren Collison found out the hard way last season.
Scene of the crime: Kyrie leaves Collison behind
Picking Irving up full court, Collison tried to cut off Irving’s angle near midcourt. Unfazed, Irving went behind his back to change direction, and it was Collison who lost his footing and crashed to the floor.
With a spin move, Irving effortlessly floated past Collison’s prone body. In a sequence that featured 11 total dribbles, Irving needed just three to ratchet up his speed while splitting Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic before finishing on the opposite side of the basket.
“His feet. His feet are always moving,” Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown said. “He has good handle, of course. But his feet, he can change pace at a drop of a dime.
“I think that’s what helps him take it to another level.”
Celtics forward Gordon Hayward is one of the league’s better ball handlers for his size — the benefits of a late childhood growth spurt — but he believes that part of Irving’s success is being able to run at the feet of NBA giants.
“Kyrie has this ability to be so low to the ground,” Hayward said. “Yes, he’s got a special ability to change speeds, but he’s just so low to the ground, and all his moves are really tight. For me, that’s the most impressive thing.
“That and how he handles himself around the rim because he’s not the most vertically athletic guard, but he shoots layups on people and makes them look real easy.”
Just ask 2016-17 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green. During Boston’s lone visit to Golden State last season, Irving tried to drive to Green’s left, but the big man was able to shuffle along and deny him.
Kyrie’s journey past Draymond, second-by-second
Irving didn’t just slam on the brakes — slowing from 10.2 mph to a mere 2.8 mph in seven-tenths of a second — but he practically melted into the ground while changing direction with a dribble between his legs before sliding off Green’s right hip to get into the paint.
Even with less than two feet of breathing room, Irving is able to calmly spin a left-handed layup off the glass.
“He’s really good at positioning his body and finding little spots to get it up on the glass,” Hayward said. “He’s got all the spins and stuff. That’s really impressive. But it’s the way he uses all those dribble moves to get to the hoop.”
There’s a certain pressure that comes with playing alongside Irving. Oh sure, Irving makes things easy for his teammates with his playmaking abilities, but there’s heightened expectations to finish his flashy dishes. Just ask Al Horford.
During that early season game in Milwaukee, Irving tied Brogdon in a knot dribbling in front of the Boston bench and, with a fancy spin move in tight space, broke free toward the basket. Bucks big man John Henson came over with help, but Irving got low and tiptoed the baseline before somehow flinging a waist-high, two-handed backhand from the charge circle to a wide-open Horford near the top of the key.
“I remember that move specifically because I was like, ‘Oh, man, I better knock that shot down after all the work that he just did,'” Horford said with a laugh. “It puts pressure on you. You gotta knock down those shots.
“That’s a top-10 play right there.”
Kyrie’s passes vs. keeps after drives
As good as Irving was attacking the basket last season, he was even better when he used the chaos he created off the dribble to generate open looks for teammates. The Celtics averaged 1.21 points per direct Irving drive whenever he passed out of it, compared with a still-robust 1.13 points when he finished with a shot, according to Second Spectrum data.
Horford clearly benefited from Irving, shooting 43.4 percent on 3-point attempts off his feeds. Horford marvels watching Irving in action.
“It’s one thing doing all these things with no defense, no pressure,” Horford said. “It’s another thing to do that in the middle of the game — having to make decisions — and he makes it all look so easy.
“That’s what impresses me most about what he does.”