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Kyrie Irving out-duels Kawhi Leonard in an epic 4th quarter as Celtics top Raptors 117-108

Kyrie Irving led the Celtics to banner mid-season win over the Toronto Raptors.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After a shaky three-game losing streak that had the media buzzing with Celtic frustration, Kyrie Irving led his Boston team to a major victory, notching 25 points, 5 rebounds, and a career-high 18 assists in a 117-108 victory over the Toronto Raptors.

Communication became the story of the Celtics following their road trip marked as much by direct and indirect internal conversation on the team as much as it was the three straight losses. Returning home, it fit that they faced the team that usurped them as the East’s elite in the first half of the season by playing the conference’s best two-way basketball. Boston needed to fix things quickly.

A miscommunication between Kyrie Irving and Al Horford left a pass floating in open space for Kawhi Leonard to walk to his first two of nine points in the first quarter. Later, a similar pass bounced by its lonesome out of Irving’s hands until Normal Powell scooped it up to throw down with one hand while Gordon Hayward watched helplessly from behind. With seven minutes left in the first, Irving’s pass attempt inside to Marcus Morris got cut off and flew quickly in the other direction for an easy Paschal Siakam layup and an 18-7 Raptors lead.

Irving fell over Horford setting a screen, calling for the ball at the three-point line after feeding Morris inside as the bench rotated in facing a deficit.

Led by Gordon Hayward, the second unit saved the game, before Irving and Horford built a two-man connection for the rest of the game that created 51 points and charged the Celtics by Toronto for a 117-108 win in in the final minutes. Irving capped the victory with a three-point bomb over Kawhi Leonard three steps behind the three-point line to score 27 points and posted a career-high 18 assists to overcome his early turnovers.

Hayward entered in the first and got his man on an up-fake before stepping inside for an open 10-footer. Siakam tried to post him up moments later and got held off his position and blocked. Hayward soon added another mid-range jumper and proceeded to pull the Celtics with a burst of four assists.

The whole bench got involved around him, with Jaylen Brown scoring quickly upon entry on a cut to the rim through traffic. Terry Rozier scored a layup off the glass driving off a three-point fake. Then Aron Baynes returned to a standing ovation after missing 13 games and dunked, cutting behind Marcus Smart’s post-up on a bounce pass to pull Boston within six.

Old friend Greg Monroe entered to counter Baynes in the second, but Boston’s bench flexed harder. Following Monroe’s two inside makes in the opening two minutes, the Raptors went on a 0-for-8 swoon for five minutes midway through the quarter, only scoring two points from Monroe at the free throw line.

Hayward dove into the post twice, hitting Brown for a three and Baynes for his routine wrist-flick 15-footer, like he never left, as Boston shot ahead. With the second unit’s work done, Irving returned and danced around Baynes’ screen to finish with the left hand inside to push ahead 43-40, then swarmed the still-cold Raptors on defense to strip Danny Green and Fred Van Vleet. Unable to generate free throws all year, Boston got three points at the line pushing the ball following turnovers.

Irving and Hayward scored into double figures before the half, but Leonard pressed his nose to the basket to keep Toronto in the game with a layup, pair of free throws and an and-one make at the rim producing seven straight points for the Raptors. They trailed 64-53 at half.

The Leonard push toward halftime didn’t fizzle out after and only got supplemented by Serge Ibaka’s activity around the rim. Ibaka scored 11 points in the third quarter, hitting three mid-range jumpers and two finishes inside. Lowry and Danny Green hit Boston with back-to-back threes, but Irving and Horford reconnected with quality passes late.

Irving posted his 10th assist with 10 minutes remaining in the quarter and fed Horford for both a layup and two-point jumper before the Raptors wave. As part of a 30-23 quarter for Toronto, they pulled as close as 80-78 with four minutes remaining following Ibaka’s final bucket. Horford settled the storm, scoring seven straight points and smashing a dunk over Ibaka two minutes later.

The bench didn’t carry the same advantage into the second half for Boston either. The Celtics fell to under 40 percent from the field in the second half early in the fourth, as Leonard continued to attack their defense with lethal precision. The Raptors worked a steady four-point lead and the two sides unleashed a monsoon of three-point plays.

Baynes spotted up from three uncontested above the break to tie the game at 92. Leonard punched back with a three of his own, crossing the 30-point threshold. Irving and Horford combined to create another open three, but Leonard slashed right back hitting a near-impossible shot through tight defense by Irving and Smart plus the foul.

But from early struggles, Jayson Tatum had his quarter. He scored six points in a row driving to the rim through a Green foul and splashing a three to take a 106-104 lead, then Green and Irving traded tough pull-ups inside the arc. Then Irving added five more, pulling up in the face of both Ibaka at the elbow and Leonard three steps behind the arc for an explosive make and a five-point lead.

A few runaway layups later, Boston had an 11-0 run in less than 2 minutes to seal the game, and a massive bounce-back win over the East’s best.

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