BOSTON — Looking for a knockout punch during Monday’s visit from the Milwaukee Bucks, Kyrie Irving dribbled between his legs three times then once behind his back before jab-stepping his defender. Creating maybe a sliver of space, the Boston Celtics point guard rose up over 6-foot-7 Khris Middleton and effortlessly lofted a 27-foot bomb that exploded through the cylinder.
Irving, having capped his 32-point night (and maybe expecting the Bucks to call a timeout), ripped off the protective facemask he has worn since early November and exulted after a late-game dagger that helped Boston emerge with a 111-100 triumph.
Irving, still recovering from a facial fracture beneath his right eye, is hoping to shed the mask for good later this week, though it has hardly hindered him over the past month and certainly not on Monday.
Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo engaged in a fascinating second-half duel, with the Greek Freak trying to rally his team back from 20 points down and Irving ensuring there would be no comeback.
The win spoiled Greek Night at TD Garden, where flag-totting fans cheered appreciatively for the visiting star but serenaded Irving with his usual “MVP” chants.
Irving is now averaging 26.4 points while shooting 53.6 percent overall and 45.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc in the 11 games he has worn a mask. But even after another brilliant outing, Irving left no doubt as to the future of his mask.
“I’m ready to take that s— off. I’ve been ready to take it off since I wore it,” Irving said. “Four weeks, OK guys? Four weeks. So I think Saturday [is the final day with the mask]. Saturday. The countdown begins.”
Irving sustained the fracture when he caught an inadvertent elbow from teammate Aron Baynes early in a win over the Charlotte Hornets last month. Irving returned after missing the next game and initially fidgeted with his mask. In fact, he ditched it completely in the second half of a win over the Golden State Warriors and eventually swapped an asymmetrical version for one that featured bigger eyeholes.
With better court vision, Irving aided Boston’s 16-game winning streak. Irving has now scored 30 points or more in six of his past nine outings. But his cheek is feeling better and Irving is ready to ditch his headwear, no matter how comfy he might look in it.
“The cheek feels good,” said Irving, who joked about nearly tearing up when his young daughter, Azurie, hit him near the injury in the immediate aftermath of the fracture. “My daughter’s not hitting me in the face any more.”
Irving got plenty of help on Monday night. Teammate Al Horford finished with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting and flirted with a triple-double while adding nine rebounds and eight assists. Rookie Jayson Tatum, improbably the league’s top 3-point shooter, hit four first-quarter 3-pointers to help Boston build an early double-digit cushion.
But the Celtics struggled at times to slow down Antetokounmpo, who scored 16 third-quarter points on 6-of-8 shooting while helping the Bucks make it a game again. Irving countered with 14 third-quarter points on 6-of-11 shooting to ensure Milwaukee didn’t make things too interesting.
Irving finished with 19 points in the second half, while Antetokounmpo countered with 22. Irving very much enjoyed their duel.
“It’s always fun,” Irving said. “Another premiere guy in the Eastern Conference, in the league, a Nike brother of mine. It’s just always good to go against high-level competition. It just raises your game.”
TD Garden featured multiple blue-and-white Greek flags in the loge sections, especially around the visitor’s bench. Fans cheered loudly for Antetokounmpo during lineup introductions — maybe preparing for a Boston free agent run further down the road (hey, it helped with the Gordon Hayward pursuit).
Young fans wore homemade shirts with “Greek Freaks” on it while many adults had “Greek Night” tees. Antetokounmpo certainly took notice.
I want to thank the 2 thousand Greeks that showed up to the game tonight and supported me and my team! I counted like 15 greek flags???? at the game tonight. ????
— Giannis Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) December 5, 2017
But as spectacular as Antetokounmpo was for much of the night, the Celtics rode a surging offense to keep him at arm’s length. Celtics coach Brad Stevens called the first half “as good as [Boston has] played offensively all year.” The Celtics’ defense hasn’t been as crisp as it was earlier in the year but did enough to help Boston emerge with its third straight victory.
The Celtics, who avenged a loss to the Bucks during their home-opener here in October, sit atop the Eastern Conference at 21-4, still 3.5 games in front of a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has won 12 in a row.
Given the way Antetokounmpo took over at times Monday, Stevens took the opportunity to appreciate both the Greek Freak and his own eccentric point guard.
“When [Antetokounmpo] gets going downhill, he finishes so well around the rim,” Stevens said. “That’s the thing, we were between him and the basket on a lot of those finishes. He’s really special and he’s going to be a special player for a long, long time. You think about it, he played 39 minutes tonight. He played both ends, had to guard Al at the end in the fourth quarter and he’s still going at the rim like he was. He’s tough.”
Turning his focus to Irving, Stevens said, “I think he’s getting more comfortable. He’s been unbelievable, I think. Obviously, his exploits on the offensive end are pretty well documented, all the things that he can do. … But he plays hard and he puts forth a lot of effort on both ends.
“He’s been really good, obviously. I feel like I’m stating the obvious on him and Giannis. They’re good.”