With just over eight minutes to go in the third quarter, Brad Stevens made a curious substitution. With the game tied at 61, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward were pulled in favor of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Morris. Nick Nurse hadn’t made any changes to the Raptors lineup and it seemed like a premature substitution with the game in the balance.
Toronto’s starting lineup is 6’1, 6’6, 6’7, 6’9, and 6’10. That more or less matches Boston’s Big Five, so going small at that crucial moment was unexpected and broke Stevens’ usual pattern of folding in Morris for Hayward, Smart for Brown, Rozier for Kyrie Irving, Aron Baynes for Al Horford, and reinserting Hayward for Tatum down the road.
It proved to be a failed experiment as the Raptors built a 10-point lead in four minutes. In the fourth quarter, Boston went back to going big. With Irving at the point, Hayward, Tatum, and Morris on the wings, and Horford at the 5 (with some sprinkling of Brown and Baynes), the Celtics displayed some playoff mettle.
From the start of the final quarter to the end of overtime, the Celtics went to the line twelve times. Post-season basketball grinds to a hault in May and June and free throws can make a huge difference. They have been hard to come by in 2018-2019 with Boston ranking 28th at 20.3 a night; in last night’s rematch with the Raptors, they paraded to 24. It’s not a particularly big number, but in a grinding game with a playoff atmosphere, it’s a good indicator of physicality. For all their virtues, this turned into a banger bar fight and smaller players like Smart, Rozier, and even Brown were less effective.
Consider Morris closing on Kawhi Leonard defensively. Leonard finished with 31 points, but in crunch time, he was 2-for-6 against Mook on mostly mid-range jumpers and contested fall aways in the paint, including a shot that could have won the game in regulation:
On offense in the 4th and OT, Irving and Tatum did the bulk of the scoring with 23 and 12 respectively, but you could see Boston’s size again making a difference. With Danny Green fouling out and OG Anunoby out with a wrist injury, head coach Nick Nurse had to play the smaller Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright opposite Kyle Lowry. That created mismatches that Hayward and Tatum could take advantage of:
Friday night was undoubtedly The Kyrie Irving Show, but again, Boston’s size advantage over Toronto played a big part in the big win. Stevens has been talking about Hayward’s “jack-of-all-trades” skill set a lot over the last week and he turned in a complete stat line of 15-5-5 and four steals. Baynes, who spent most of the night wrestling with Jonas Valanciunas, didn’t put up a three, but hit all four free throws and dished out four assists. The third meeting between these two teams on January 16th could present completely different tweaks and schemes. Toronto could go guard heavy with C.J. Miles and Norman Powell back from injury. Boston could play more pick and roll with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. Tonight, however, belonged to Kyrie Irving and his wing men.