It’s not every night you get a chance to witness two of the top teams in the East battle each other and the latest edition of the Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors did not disappoint. The home team won, as has been the case in the last six contests, but the great display of shot-making, versatile defense, and increased pace was a welcomed sign to lovers of modern basketball.
Mixed in, was the physicality of a game in May with both teams understanding the road was long, but any mental edge they can capture in preparation for a potential duel was vital. With effort and versatility played out to a draw, the stage was set for two stars to decide the outcome of the game. Kawhi Leonard gave the Celtics all they could handle on his way to 31 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists, but the night belonged to Kyrie Irving.
The 26-year old superstar scored 43 points, 11 assists, and 3 steals which included scoring or assists on 36 points for the Celtics in the 4th quarter and in overtime which was more points than the Raptors were able to score in the same time period (34). It was the first time in Kyrie Irving’s career he had ever gone for both 40+ points and 10+ assists and it was the first time since Larry Bird any Celtic had done it at home. Needless to say, it was a historic night for Irving against what many believe will be the teams biggest threat.
Kyrie Irving dropped 43 points on 29 true shot attempts, an efficient 1.48 PSA on 37% usage. He dominating the right side of the midrange. His 11 assists included 4 at the rim and 3 behind the arc. Per @inpredict, he led all players with a 47% win probability added. pic.twitter.com/MxX50kIEGs— Positive Residual (@presidual) November 17, 2018
Even more impressive than the gaudy numbers was the way Irving got them.
Here, the Celtics set a stagger screen for Irving to get Kawhi off of him and get the more favorable match up against Kyle Lowry. As he progresses through his read, he sees that Kawhi has switched out to a shooter, and Lowry is his new primary defender so he puts his head down, gets to his spot, and scores.
On the next possession, the Celtics set the stagger again, but Lowry shows hard after the first screener. Irving quickly counters and keeps Lowry on his hip, forcing him to either commit to the double team on Irving and leave Al Horford open for three or stay home on Horford which would allow him to go one-on-one with Ibaka. Lowry picks the latter and Irving immediately puts his head down and gets to the rim using his spatial awareness to avoid a Leonard strip and finish with grace over Ibaka.
In the overtime, Irving used isolation to expose VanVleet who does not have the requisite size to defend him.
And when the Celtics got into the clear out again, Irving used Valanciunas overcommitting to him to find Horford wide open for the 16ft’er.
The chess match with the Raptors was about as close to playoff defense and offense we’ll get at this time of the year and it highlighted the potential problems Irving could give the Raptors. Here’s what Irving had to say about attacking the Raptors defense:
“[I] Take mental notes of what’s coming then try to make a pre-switch or a tweak here or a screen here or something that gets somebody open.”
As the plays above highlighted, even if the initial defender in the possession is Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, or Danny Green, Irving and the Celtics can target the match up they want him in and put the Raptors in a bind where they have to chose between collapsing or staying on the perimeter.
Maybe the Celtics don’t have the best player in the series, but what they do have is a superstar capable of becoming the best scorer on the court at any given time, and with co-stars like Gordon Hayward (15 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals) and Jayson Tatum (21 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals), rounding into form, that may be too potent of a combination for any team standing in front of them.