Kyrie Irving had complained this month about his lack of peripheral vision while wearing a protective mask. But it seems impossible as he strode across the half-court line in the fourth quarter of last week's game against the Atlanta Hawks that Irving didn't see the five black jerseys in front of him.
No, Irving simply wasn't going to be deterred going to the basket as crunch time neared.
Having caught Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder on his heels while trying to get back in transition, Irving accelerated, performed a little dribble move and started up near the left blocks.
By the time the ball floated from his left hand, there were five Hawks in the paint with him, four of which went up to contest. It's astounding Irving didn't get stripped or blocked and, while the shot didn't fall, he got to the free-throw line in a two-possession game.
With a little more than a minute to go, he somehow created space with a step-back 3 in the left corner that he splashed. It was the second time in six games that Irving had scored 12 fourth-quarter points against the Hawks, and Boston's double-digit win streak rolled on.
Kyrie hits the dagger from the corner
With the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter, Kyrie Irving sinks a 3-pointer over Dennis Schroder to seal the Celtics' 15th consecutive win.
What is it about the fourth quarter for Irving?
"Pretty simple: It's winning time, man," Irving said. "Been doing it for a few years in the league in the fourth quarter. Just doing whatever is needed to get the win."
Isaiah Thomas produced one of the most memorable offensive seasons in Celtics history last year and earned the Game of Thrones-inspired nickname "King in the Fourth," based on his absurd final-quarter exploits.
It seemed unlikely that anyone could rival Thomas' fourth-quarter production any time soon. So even though Irving arrived with a reputation as one of the league's most clutch players, it was fair to wonder if he could carry the Celtics late in games in the same way that Thomas did.
Irving isn't scoring with quite the same volume as Thomas did last year, but Irving has been maybe more efficient and has only cemented his own reputation as one of the league's best late-game players.
In 40 minutes of clutch time, Irving has scored a league-best 65 points on 24 of 39 shooting (61.5 percent), to go along with 10 assists. Maybe most remarkable: Irving hasn't committed a single turnover in that span. He has scored 34 points in the paint and drawn 11 fouls that have allowed him to go 13-of-16 at the charity stripe, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
For much of the 2016-17 season, Thomas was on pace to set a new NBA record for scoring average in the fourth quarter. Maybe in part due to his ailing hip, Thomas faded slightly late in the regular season, but he still finished at 9.8 fourth-quarter points per game. That would have been best mark in the two decades since the league began tracking quarterly scoring, but league MVP Russell Westbrook finished the year averaging 10.0 points per game in the fourth.
Irving isn't scoring quite as much as Thomas or Westbrook. He's averaging 7.3 points per game in the fourth this year, the fourth best mark in the league, but he's doing it in fewer minutes than Thomas did (Irving is averaging only 7.3 fourth-quarter minutes per game). And it's when he's scoring: Irving's production is coming largely in the final five minutes, especially in close games.
To reinforce just how good Irving has been in the clutch, ESPN Stats & Information date indicate that entering Wednesday's action, Irving's clutch-time PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is a staggering 78.0. The next closest player (among qualifiers with at least 25 minutes per game) is his former Cleveland teammate LeBron James, who owns a clutch PER of 46.0.
Irving is currently on a pace to obliterate the league's best clutch-time PER.
Zoom outside of clutch time and Irving's overall fourth-quarter play becomes even more remarkable.
For the season, Irving is averaging 1.055 points per play, which ranks in the 79th percentile among all NBA players, according to Synergy Sports data. In the fourth quarter, that number spikes to 1.158 points per play and it jumps again to 1.235 points per play in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.
For the sake of comparison, Thomas averaged 1.125 points per play last season, which ranked him in the 97th percentile among all NBA players, per Synergy data. Thomas averaged 1.198 points per play in the fourth quarter last year and 1.223 points per play in the final five minutes.
Which is to say their production is quite similar. Thomas' efforts might still be more impressive, because he was seemingly Boston's only playmaker last season and teams couldn't shut him down. Irving has received some late-game help, even from the likes of young teammates such as second-year swingman Jaylen Brown and rookie Jayson Tatum.
But that game against the Hawks showed Irving isn't afraid to go 5-on-0 versus the opposition when his team really needs points. He takes his game to another level in the fourth quarter, and it has left even opposing crowds chanting MVP at him late in games.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has shown trust in Irving, who said his faith in Stevens' playcalling makes it easy for him to thrive late in games.
"There's open dialogue, but we prepare for it. He understands the talent that I have at that point, especially in the fourth quarter, but I also understand his brilliant mind," Irving said. "When we're preparing and going through walk-through or simulated situations, it's kinda easy to go off of one another. I'm able to see the reads and what's going to happen.
"Then he makes the playcalls and what he sees out there, and we're just continuously building that trust in one another, so it's pretty easy."
Irving said, ultimately, he simply does what Stevens is asking from the co-pilot seat.
"Ain't too much trading [thoughts]. He's the man," Irving said. "I just try to soak up as much knowledge as possible, being in the passenger's seat. It's like having a driving school teacher and he's driving the whole time and he's putting you in the driving seat sometimes and you're able to see the road. You're able to bounce ideas sometimes and have that kind of connection. It's pretty awesome. He does most of the teaching. I'm mostly listening, just taking in as much knowledge as I can."
Apprised of Irving's comments, Stevens said that in the aftermath of losing Gordon Hayward and given Boston's general struggles to generate consistent offense, he simplified the playbook. There are fewer 3-point turns and more trips on the freeway to let Irving experience the open road.
"Obviously, we had a whole kind of group of things that we were going to go to or had planned on going to the first week of the season, with him and Gordon [Hayward] and Al [Horford], really, in particular spots," Stevens said. "We gotta make small tweaks to that, obviously, just trying to keep it as simple and spaced as possible.
"[Irving is] so good in those moments that you want to give him the appropriate amount of room. Maybe it's finding a matchup, maybe it's creating a two-man game with Al. And it really just kinda depends on what he feels and what we've seen their defense have a tendency to do."
It hasn't mattered what opposing defenses have thrown at Irving; he's found a way to dominate, especially when it matters most.