Kyrie Irving, Celtics find renewed focus after All-Star break

BOSTON -- Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving believes his team has renewed focus since reconvening from the All-Star break, and he thinks that has helped Boston pull itself from the skid that had weighed heavy on his mind during the midseason break.

A locked-in Irving scored 25 points in less than 25 minutes of floor time Monday night while helping the Celtics run away with a 109-98 triumph over the visiting Memphis Grizzlies.

Boston has won three straight since the All-Star break and sits a half-game back of the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

In those three games, Irving is averaging 24.7 points over 29.7 minutes per game while shooting 53.1 percent from the field and a sizzling 51.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. Irving also is averaging 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in that span and has looked hellbent in getting Boston on track after one of its poorest stretches of the season before the break.

What has changed for Boston over the past three games?

"Just our focus level," Irving said. "Getting everybody back. Just knowing what we're trying to get ready for."

Irving often embraced Boston's rough patches during the first half of the season -- deeming them necessary for a young team to encounter -- but as the Celtics stumbled into the All-Star break losers of three straight and nine of their previous 15 games, Irving sent up caution flags and seemed a bit unnerved by Boston's prolonged struggles.

When the Celtics reconvened last week for a couple of days of practice before a two-game road trip, second-year guard Jaylen Brown made particular note of Irving's revived direction. Brown pointed out how both Irving and fellow All-Star Al Horford were putting an increased emphasis on attention to detail.

Boston has responded with three wins in four days, and Irving has been spectacular throughout. The Celtics also have received a boost from a reinvigorated second unit that has been buoyed by the return of Marcus Smart, who missed the final 11 games before the All-Star break due to hand lacerations.

"Oh yeah," Irving replied Monday when asked if he felt a sense of rejuvenation among Celtics players. "Just wanted to utilize All-Star break to get your body and mind back centered and focused and getting ready for what's to come ahead."

Irving, who often offers sprawling answers in media sessions, seems briefer in his responses in recent days. And he has harped on Boston needing to be ready for what lies ahead, a nod to not only the stretch run but also the playoff grind. The Celtics will see the Raptors twice in the coming weeks, which will allow Boston to compete for the top spot in the East. That would be no small prize if Irving's former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, remains in the No. 3 playoff position, thus avoiding the Celtics in the early rounds.

Celtics players have admitted that the team needed a bit of a respite to help refocus.

"Everyone needs a break," said veteran forward Marcus Morris. "You know what I'm saying? It's not even about basketball always. It's the mental aspect of the game. You get the chance to see your family, get the chance to just not think about basketball all the time. People don't see that side of it.

"Sometimes it gets to you. Game after game. Traveling and staying in different hotels. It gets to you, and I think, especially for the younger dudes who haven't been in this situation, I think the break really benefited them. Just time to take a deep breath and look forward to the playoffs."

Irving, a career 38.6 percent 3-point shooter, seems particularly locked in with his 3-point shot. While the Celtics and coach Brad Stevens have put a heavy emphasis on taking quality 3-point looks, Irving has had instances where he simply makes defenses pay with long 3-pointers when given even the slightest bit of space.

Irving has connected on 15 of 29 3-point attempts since the All-Star break, including 5 of 8 attempts in Monday's victory. Irving hit a trio of first-quarter 3s against the Grizzlies, including a couple from 26 feet, then he added a 28-foot pullup in the second quarter, when Boston's lead ballooned as high as 27. (The Celtics' biggest lead of the game was 28 points.)

Shooting the 3-point shot with confidence makes Irving that much more dangerous as a scoring weapon.

"In order for me to create opportunities, I have to be aggressive in some other areas," Irving said. "I feel like, throughout my career, I've probably kind of played it safe, coming off some pick-and-rolls, shooting 3s. And within our offense, and within our system, I'm able to come off some pindowns and have the ability to be in position to shoot. I've just gotta knock them down.

"When I do that, defenses will be at a much higher awareness and it will create other opportunities for my teammates. So I just play it both [ways], just try to make the right read every single play."