Tomase: Kyrie Irving already measures up to Celtics legend Larry Bird with this one skill

John Tomase
November 10, 2017 - 2:51 pm
Kyrie Irving

Mark D. Smith/USA Today Sports


Kyrie Irving has played a dozen games for the Celtics, and I already feel comfortable making at least one comparison to franchise legend Larry Bird -- Irving's ability to score with his left hand.

Bird was one of the great off-hand scorers in NBA history, adding a series of runners, sweeping hooks, and pull-ups as his career progressed. He famously scored 20 points lefty against the Blazers as part of a monster 47-14-11 triple-double in 1986 ("I'm saving my right hand for the Lakers," he declared), and by the end of his career, his lefty range extended comfortably to 15 feet.

Before every game, as part of an intricate warmup routine, Irving practices left-handed shots in and around the lane. What looks spontaneous in a game is actually drilled and rehearsed, his dazzling ability to finish a function not just of his insane ball-handling skills, but his ambidextrous options at the rim.

After cross-referencing Irving's shot chart with video of each Celtics game (thank you, NBA League Pass), by my unofficial count, Irving has taken 84 shots from within 10 feet and made 47 of them (56 percent). He has made 14-of-28 (50 percent) with his left hand and 33-of-56 (58.9 percent) with his right.

The lefty baskets almost defy categorization. They range from right-handed drives on the right side that end with left-handed floaters high off the glass, to runners in the lane, to Euro-step bank shots on the left block, to more conventional breakaways, scoops, and reverse layups.

One of Irving's most memorable shots so far -- a foray through the entire Lakers defense on Wednesday night with the ball doing his bidding -- ended with a wide-open left-handed layup once he split the final two defenders.

Irving has become borderline unstoppable with his left hand during the team's 10-game winning streak. After going 1-for-7 in two losses to open the season, he has made 14 of 23 since, including 11 of his last 13.

Irving scored eight points left-handed in the final 14 minutes of a monster comeback against the Thunder last Friday. Those four baskets alone illustrate the challenge of guarding No. 11, who never seems to take the same shot twice. He made a lefty drive on the right side, a running bank shot from just inside the free throw line, a putback of his own missed foul shot, and a turn-around fadeaway from the left block kissed high off the glass over the outstretched arms of shot-blocker Steven Adams.

Irving's as smooth shooting with his left hand as he is breaking down defenders off the dribble with it, giving him limitless options to score. At least twice this year, he has gone up for a contested right-handed shot, only to switch hands in mid-air and score. One such hoop, over former Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk against the Heat, left the seven-footer wondering how an easy block instead became a slippery basket.

But Irving leaves lots of defenders shaking their heads. He's such a good finisher because he never shoots quite where or when you expect. He's a master of getting defenders in the air while he stays on the floor, or soaring past them while they remain flat-footed. Half his baskets seem to come while he's on the way up or they're on the way down, or vice versa, whether it's courtesy a giant Euro-step or wrong-footing his layups.

His ability to score left-handed plays a huge role in that creativity. You can't overplay one hand, because he'll score with the other. Even if two-thirds of his finishes come right-handed, a high percentage of those start on the left side or could easily be finished lefty. Defenders are left guessing until the shot leaves his hand.

We haven't seen this kind of ambidextrous creativity in Boston since it was practiced 30 years ago by one of the 10 greatest players in NBA history.

Larry Bird comparisons should never, ever, ever be made lightly. But in the case of Kyrie Irving's left hand, it has taken only one breathtaking month to realize they're justified.

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