BOSTON -- Boston Celtics big man Al Horford was assessing his team's latest rally from a double-digit deficit -- No. 7 of the 2017-18 season saw the short-handed Celtics charge from as many as 12 down to top the visiting Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night -- when he noted, "It all starts with Kyrie for us. Everybody knows that."
Horford might have been better off suggesting it all ends with Irving, who continues to dazzle in clutch time (when the score is within five points in final five minutes). Irving scored seven of his game-high 23 points over the final 3:45, twisting Mavericks defenders into pretzels while attacking the basket off a variety of dribble moves and helping Boston run away with a 97-90 triumph at TD Garden.
Irving has scored 74 clutch-time points while shooting an absurd 62.2 percent in those situations. He has slipped to second in total clutch point output behind former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James (76), but to showcase just how far ahead of the rest of the league the duo is, Portland's Damian Lillard (56) is the only other player with more than 45 clutch points this season.
Sure, it has helped Irving (and James and Lillard) that their teams have played so many close games. But that Irving has so routinely taken over in the fourth quarter this season still is mesmerizing. The poor Mavericks have seen Irving rally the Celtics to victory twice in the span of little more than two weeks.
Asked what changed late in Wednesday's game, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle offered, "I don't have an exact recollection of it. Irving made some amazing plays, which he always does."
For his part, Irving shrugged off his latest exploits.
"Just winning time," he said. "Simple as that."
Irving then apologized to reporters, wondering if they were sick of hearing him say how much he enjoys the final minutes of a close game.
A reporter then asked if Irving considers the game an art form.
"Oh yeah, it is. For sure," Irving said. "It's just a lot of movement, a lot of thoughts that we have to put into action. The responsibility you have to put in other people, the responsibility you have to put in yourself and demand it every single possession, and the energy that it takes out of you in order to do that for your teammates on both ends of the floor.
"It's just a constant masterpiece that you have to paint. Sometimes it's going to be all scribble and stuff like that, it's OK to get out of the lines. That's the way I think of it sometimes or, excuse me, most of the time when I'm describing it and watching it, just watching so many different details that I need to do in order to think about the best way to get a win."
Back in the first quarter, Irving got into a little dust-up with Dennis Smith Jr. after fouling the Dallas rookie on a drive to the basket. Smith tried to create some space with his left arm, and Irving fouled him as he went up with a layup. Smith bumped Irving after the whistle and jawed from behind him before Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum moved between the two to prevent any escalation.
Irving detailed after the game how he has watched Smith on his way up to the NBA, noting he's aware of all the players who come with the label of being the next great point guard.
"I've had the unique opportunity to play well against some of the best point guards and struggle against them as well," Irving said. "They'll use some veteran savvy in order to kind of take you out of your game. You just learn from that. The mix-ups in the games, that's always part of it. People bumping, trying to prove something, that's always fun. It stays within the game. So you understand that. It's a competitive streak.
"It's always great to go against -- it's kind of weird to call them young guys because I've been watching, I knew about these guys when they were in middle school and high school. I'm just an avid YouTube watcher, an avid studier of people's games. So I've been watching him since he was in high school, when he was doing windmills on his AAU team in North Carolina. I've been studying for a while. And to play against him now as a 25-year-old man is awesome."
Like playing in close games in the fourth quarter, Irving seems to relish the challenge of top competition.
"I'm scouting all the time," Irving said. "Especially young guys that are coming in that are highly touted as I once was in their position, being a top-three, top-five recruit and being labeled as the next great point guard. And the steps that you have to take in order to do that, it's a long journey. So you just have to appreciate it. And when you play against them, just give them your best shot."
Shane Larkin, who has played sparingly recently while recovering from a hard fall in Miami, provided 11 much-needed bench points over 15 minutes.
"He missed a couple of 3s and then he had the moxie to make the next one," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He's a good basketball player. And when we got him, to me it's all about games where it's not going great, he can change the tempo of that."
Tatum provided an early spark while scoring 17 points and improving his league-leading 3-point percentage (2-for-3). Tatum added 10 rebounds as well. Horford had his nightly flirt with a triple-double (17 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists) and Terry Rozier came up with some big late-game moments, including a rare dunk in transition that fired up Boston's bench. Rozier finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
"Terry stayed with it," Horford said. "He started the game and it wasn't going for him, but he kept playing the right way and he got rewarded."
The Celtics have won four straight. They're an NBA-best 22-4 and still own a 3½-game cushion over the Cleveland Cavaliers, even as the defending East champs have won 13 straight.
These Celtics have stuck with a winning formula: Don't get fazed by an early deficit, everybody chips in and Irving takes it to another level late.
"It's fun for me because you really just have to blow into your bag of tricks and prepare yourself for whatever the defense is about to throw at you," Irving said. "There are just adjustments that get to be made in the fourth quarter that don't get to be made in the first three quarters, so just try to take advantage of those things."