Former Duke star Kyrie Irving wanted off the Cleveland Cavaliers and seemingly away from the shadow of superstar LeBron James. He craved to be the centerpiece of a team, and so far that’s worked out great with the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics enter Friday night’s home game against the Charlotte Hornets on a 10-game winning streak. With Gordon Hayward out, probably for the season, with a broken left ankle, Irving has been huge for the Celtics, averaging 22.2 points, 5.7 assists and 1.5 steals.
Hornets point guard Kemba Walker says the difference now is how Irving applies himself on defense, not traditionally his strength.
"He’s a lot better defensively," Walker said at Friday-morning shootaround at TD Garden. "He wanted to come to a team and be a leader, and you can see that. I don’t know what goes on within, but when I watch the Celtics play I can tell they feed off Kyrie."
Hornets coach Steve Clifford said it’s obvious Irving feels he has something to prove in Boston.
"He looks like he’s on a mission; he’s in a good place and you can tell that. He’s happy. He’s playing with incredible purpose, force and emotion."
Clifford said Thursday that small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would start Friday, after missing the previous three games with an excused personal absence.
Clifford said how much Kidd-Gilchrist plays will be open-ended; that he won’t be on something similar to the 7-minutes-per-half limit he was when he missed 12 days previously.
"I told him whatever he can handle, just let us know," as far as minutes, Clifford said. "He’s progressed to a point that once he’s tired, he can come out and go back in. This isn’t like before; he’s in a lot better shape."
Clifford said Kidd-Gilchrist guarding Irving (they played on the same high school team, incidentally), probably isn’t an option tonight because the Celtics are so big at shooting guard and small forward. There isn’t an alternative matchup for Walker defensively.
"They’re just so darn big, the way their wing guys are playing; It’s (Jaylen) Brown, it’s (Marcus) Smart and it’s (Jayson) Tatum. You can’t play small on those guys."
Rookie Tatum, the third pick out of Duke, is questionable to play Friday with ankle soreness. A 6-8 small forward, he’s averaging 13.5 points and shooting 50 percent from the field and 53 percent from 3-point range.
Clifford said Tatum is a prototype for how the NBA is evolving.
"This league is about two-way players – guys who can (excel at) offense and defense – who have versatility, quickness and toughness, and they have a roster full of them," Clifford said.
That allows the Celtics to switch frequently on defense, similar to how Golden State excels defensively.
▪ Hornets forward Treveon Graham will miss the Celtics game with a thigh contusion.
▪ Hornets backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams had a strong first half against the New York Knicks Tuesday, particularly on defense. The better 6-6 Carter-Williams plays, the more ways Clifford can utilize 6-3 rookie Malik Monk.
"When he and Malik play together, they can be interchangeable, which is a big advantage," Clifford said. "It gives us a chance to get Malik off the ball and take advantage of his movement."
▪ Celtics center Al Horford, who has been in concussion protocol, was upgraded Friday afternoon to questionable for Friday.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell