Terry Rozier

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Celtics 90, Hornets 87: Who needs a Big Three? Without Irving, Celtics still find a way against Hornets

John Tomase
November 10, 2017 - 10:35 pm
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We won't know for sure until 2018 if Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford constitute a legitimate Big Three.

That's because Hayward broke his leg five minutes into the season. But Irving and Horford remained a more formidable duo than we realized, and the Celtics ripped off nine straight wins behind their two pillars.

But then Horford suffered a concussion against the Hawks. The Celtics extended their winning streak to 10 without him by beating the Lakers on Wednesday, because Irving on his own remains one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the game.

Except what happens when there's no Irving? The Celtics found an answer for one night, anyway, and it was more of the same.

Let's make it 11 in a row.

With Irving knocked out of the game -- almost literally -- by an elbow from teammate Aron Baynes in the first minute, the Celtics had every reason to fold up shop against the Hornets. They trailed 26-11 after one and by double digits for most of the first three quarters.

But Celtics coach Brad Stevens went full mad-scientist, giving minutes to the likes of Abdel Nader and Guerschon Yabusele. He rode the hot hand of guard Shane Larkin, who did his best Kyrie impersonation with 16 points in 17 minutes. He got 16 points -- including a pair of huge stretch buckets -- from rookie Jayson Tatum.

When it was over, the Celtics had erased a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter to eke out a 90-87 victory that wasn't decided until Jaylen Brown (10 points, 13 rebounds) broke up a Charlotte inbounds pass with three seconds left, forcing Malik Monk to attempt a full-court hook shot as time expired.

It goes without saying that the Celtics can't live like this for very long. But a month into the 2017 season, they've already forged an identity as a brutally efficient defensive unit that will eventually figure things out on the offense end -- with or without any of this year's big three.

Newcomer Marcus Morris drilled a monster jumper to beat the shot clock with 24 seconds left and push the lead to three, but his biggest contribution came on the defensive end, where he hounded guard Jeremy Lamb. He also played stout defense on point guard Kemba Walker, forcing him into a long contested jumper with the Celtics leading by a point in the final 20 seconds.

But if we've learned anything about the Celtics this young season specifically, but under Stevens in general, it's that they don't quit when the odds appear overwhelmingly stacked against them.

They prevailed on Friday despite shooting just .357 from the field and .290 on 3-pointers (9 for 31). They did it by making 21 of 25 free throws, compared to just 19 of 33 for Charlotte, and by winning the rebounding battle, 49-47.

So it's going to be a while before we see this newest Big Three. Depending on Horford's recovery from a concussion, we won't be seeing the dynamic duo, either. Irving's own head problems could leave the Celtics completely starless in the near future.

For now it doesn't matter. Tomorrow is a new day, and the way this team is built, an opportunity for a new hero to emerge.

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