(It’s best to watch the video to follow what Kyrie is laying down. Or up.)
Half manmade, half amazing. That’s how Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving’s current and former teammates described the four-time All-Star’s ability to finish every way imaginable — over, around, under and through anybody.
“I think it’s half and half,” Irving’s backup, Shane Larkin, told Parquet Post. “Some of the moves he makes, the gaps he sees, it’s just God-given ability, but he definitely works on his craft. He takes his job very seriously, and he’s always working on his handles. Before the game, you see him working on the dribbling, getting a feel of the ball, so I think half of it is just how hard he’s worked in his career and half of it is just God-given ability.”
Most debates over the game’s best ballhandlers and shotmakers often begin with Irving and end with Warriors superstar Stephen Curry. We may try to tackle the handle at some point, although that’s a mythical beast all its own, but for now let’s focus on Irving’s shotmaking. For me, at least, one of the best perks of having a press pass is watching everyone’s pregame routine from the sidelines. Curry’s is legendary, but Irving’s is an experience all its own — an exercise in visualization that blows your mind.
“He always had it, and it was the first time I had ever seen anything like that,” said Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Irving’s high school teammate at St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J. “Where we’re from, there’s tons of guards, athletes and stuff like that, but I had never seen anything like him.”
Irving comes storming out of the locker room at the same time before every game, somewhere between 52 and 54 minutes before tipoff by the Celtics staff’s estimation. His vision matches the tunnel from which he emerges, bypassing a few dozen autograph-seeking fans. A quick stretch, then to it.
Pregame routines have a pecking order. Larkin gets the earliest run. Players casually cycle through the C’s side of the court, from reserves to starters. Guards work their way around the perimeter, taking shots from a handful of spots; bigs do the same from the post. Everyone has a preferred staffer, but there’s no Ray Allen-like obsessive compulsion to this team.
Al Horford comes after everyone but one, and he has more structure to his routine than the players before him — a series of shots from the block, followed by some mid-range jumpers, a few free throws, and he’s a wrap.
But Irving is a different beast. His pregame warmup routine is the basketball embodiment of the Eye of Providence — that symbolic eye of God watching over humanity that he’s woven into his shoes and tattoos.
Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen is already waiting for Irving when he takes his first layup — a right-handed attempt hopping off his left leg, taken in such a way that lets you know this is more than a drill. This is an experience. He makes exactly three shots from a variety of angles, maybe as an homage to the all-seeing third eye, switching to his right leg and left hand, left leg and left hand and right leg and right hand.
“He’s a hard worker. He wants greatness,” Kidd-Gilchrist told Parquet Post. “Whatever he has to do before or after, he does it. He’s disciplined.”
This may all sound routine, but I can assure you it’s anything but. Nobody warms up the way Irving does. You can count his straight jumpers on one hand. It’s all a series of awkward takeoffs, fades to the right, fades to the left, floaters every which way, step-backs and spin moves. The footwork is enough to make your head spin, if you could every take your eyes off him.
“The way he makes a shot, the angle he takes, you can sit out there and watch it and see the rotations he uses or the footwork he uses,” added Larkin, “so you can definitely take things from his game, but like I said, there’s not really many people who handle the ball and finish that way and have the complete package. So, he’s definitely special in that regard.”
There’s one move — this deliberate roundabout sequence during which you can almost see him thinking his way through the steps — that’s practically Tai Chi. It’s as if he’s imagining himself in this situation an hour later …
… and then there he is:
“His pregame, he’s definitely thinking of the shots he’s going to get in the game,” said Larkin. “By now, 60 games into the season, he kind of knows where his shots are going to be, where our offensive is going to get him to be effective, and he takes those shots during the game. I think that’s why he works on them in pregame, and obviously it’s working for him very well. He’s definitely out there imagining what’s going to happen in the game.”
Or, as Celtics play-by-play legend Mike Gorman put it during a recent podcast appearance with my Yahoo Sports colleague Chris Mannix:
“You used to walk into the old Garden … and I can remember coming in at like 3:30 in the afternoon for games at 7:30, and as I walked up the ramp the sound of the ball hitting the court would get louder and louder. You’d get to the top, and there was Bird with Corky [Qatato], who was his guy.
“Kyrie is like this a little bit. Bird wasn’t practicing 30 3-pointers. He was practicing little jump hooks in the lane, little finger rolls to the left and right, left-handed shots, and then you’d see him do it during the game. People at home were going, ‘How did he make that up?’ Well, he didn’t. He had been working on that. He knew exactly where he was going to use it.”
I rewatched every shot Irving made this season and create a mashup between his pregame routine and in-game highlights in the video above. Outside of some mindboggling freestyles, every one of his made buckets follows some variation of the shots he visualizes before each game. Seeing is believing, even for the unbelievable. See for yourself in the video.