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Kyrie Irving cannot be found when it matters most as Mavericks stumble in NBA Finals

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BOSTON — Where is Kyrie Irving?

You know who I’m talking about — the guy who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history; the guard with the best handles in league history; the guy who dropped at least 30 points on six occasions just in these playoffs.

Irving pulled another Houdini in Sunday’s Game 2, disappearing under the smothering cloak of Jrue Holiday. It left Luka Doncic to navigate a 105-98 defeat to the Celtics by his lonesome because the Mavericks, unlike their opponent, are thin on playmakers. It’s Doncic and Irving.

That’s it.

So when Irving scores an inefficient 16 points like Sunday — which followed his 12-point dud in the Game 1 loss — Dallas loses. It’s a simple equation: Irving struggles = Celtics win.

Kyrie Irving reacts during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden. Getty Images

It didn’t matter that Doncic dropped a 32-point point triple-double. It didn’t matter that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t exactly dominant. The Celtics are a team of five scorers, boasting the league’s deepest roster. The Mavericks have two scorers, and one of them — Irving — is shooting 13-for-37 in these NBA Finals.

“A lot of shots were hitting the back rim. That could piss you off as a competitor, but it’s all part of the game of basketball,” Irving said, adding later, “A little disappointed in myself not being able to convert a lot more on my opportunities that I have in the lane. Obviously, I’m going against Jrue Holiday and Jaylen Brown a few times, but I feel like I have the upper edge on certain possessions where I’ve just got to convert. They are pushing me to my left hand a little bit more. I have to be aware of some of their adjustments like I was in Game 1. … Offensively I have to play better.”

Irving has lost 12 consecutive games against the Celtics, and the karma enthusiasts look at his stomp on the TD Garden’s Lucky Leprechaun logo in 2021 as the turning point.

That’s a nice conspiracy theory — Irving’s favorite type of theories! — but his real problem in the NBA Finals is Holiday. The Celtics guard is the NBA’s most underrated player, and that’s quite a title considering he’s a two-time All-Star who was just named to his second U.S. Olympic team.

Holiday’s lack of flash and soft-spoken personality lends itself to underappreciation. The Bucks clearly didn’t understand what they had, trading Holiday for Dame Lillard to pacify Giannis Antetokounmpo’s angst. How did that work out for Milwaukee? Antetokounmpo signed the extension but I wouldn’t be shocked if he forced his way out before that extension expires.

Kyrie Irving dribbles the ball against Jrue Holiday during the third quarter. Getty Images

Holiday, meanwhile, is two wins away from his second NBA title in four years. He handcuffed Irving in Games 1 and 2. He scored 26 points, 10 more than Irving on four fewer shots.

“I’m a utility guy,” Holiday said. “I’ll do whatever. I’m here to win. I feel like they brought me here to win, and I’ll do my best to do that.”

The other storylines heading into Game 2 — most notably the head games from Jason Kidd — became the distant sidebar.

On Saturday, the Mavs coach made it a point to declare — twice — that Jaylen Brown was Boston’s best player. It was a juicy statement considering Jayson Tatum wears the same uniform.

The Tatum-Brown debate has a long history, and the underlying theme is their individual legacies would be better off without each other. Kidd played to that.

You could argue the tactic both worked and didn’t matter. Tatum, known choker in big moments, finished with 18 points and 12 assists but missed 16 of 22 shots. Brown was passive offensively with 15 shots. They were solid, hardly spectacular.

But, again, it didn’t matter. That’s because the Celtics got a gem from Holiday, a strong performance from Derrick White and a jolt from Kristaps Porzingis.

Dallas Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving (11) shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter in game two of the 2024 NBA Finals at TD Garden. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

The Mavericks don’t have those type of fallback options. Especially if they’re not playing Tim Hardaway Jr., who logged a healthy DNP on Sunday.

Irving needs to be better as the series shifts to Dallas.

“Now we go home and shake off the cobwebs a bit and prepare for another fight,” he said.

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