“He’s a good player and there’s going to be a curve,” Stevens said. “I think that 15 on eight shots is pretty good when you consider how much we’re asking him to handle the ball and make plays for others. But I think he’s done a lot of things in the last couple of weeks where you can see those steps are being made and it’s just a matter of feeling good again. 39 minutes is a good step in the right direction, as far as just his confidence — and go from there.”
Irving, who shot 69.2 percent on 18-of-26 attempts, was outstanding and the Celtics needed every bit of it to top the Raptors. It was a signature regular season performance that has set a precedent for his team.
However, without the support of guys like Tatum, Hayward and even Marcus Morris, who defended a potential Kawhi Leonard attempted game-winner at the end of regulation, Boston wouldn’t have had enough.
The Celtics still have ways to go but Friday’s significant win over the Raptors will resonate throughout the roster when they take on the Jazz Saturday night and especially after the homestand when they’ll face lowly teams like the Knicks, Hawks, Mavs and Cavaliers.
After starting the season winning 12 of their first 13 games, the Toronto Raptors suddenly find themselves looking mortal.
The Raptors will carry a three-game losing streak into Saturday’s road test against the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls, who have struggled throughout the young season, have also lost three straight, but unlike the Raptors, they were never expected to contend for an Eastern Conference title.
Both teams will head into Saturday’s game fresh off a Friday defeat.
Toronto (12-4) is coming off a 123-116 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics. Part of the Raptors’ recent frustrations have come because they have been unable put teams away late. That was the case on Friday when Toronto held a four-point lead with 90 seconds remaining in regulation. Once the Celtics drew even, the Raptors never recovered and never led in overtime.
Kawhi Leonard, who scored 31 points and had a season-high 15 rebounds to lead Toronto, missed a shot at the buzzer at the end of regulation. The Raptors held a 10-point lead at 78-68 late in the third quarter, but saw that lead disappear before failing again in the closing moments of the fourth quarter when Leonard missed his shot.
As an NBA champion and three-time Finalist, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving has ample experience on the brightest stage professional basketball has to offer.
And yet here he was in mid-November, five months before the playoffs even begin, licking his chops over a regular-season matchup.
For good reason: The Raptors were bringing their NBA-best 12-3 record to Boston for a potential — if ridiculously early — preview of the Eastern Conference finals.
“I’m excited for that game,” Irving said before Friday’s game. “Obviously one game at a time, but that’s just a competitor’s dream to be going against the best of the best.”
As he’s done so many times over the years, Irving rose to the occasion with one of the best games of his career, piling up season-highs of 43 points and 11 assists in a thrilling 123-116, overtime victory. Per Elias Sports, Irving is the first Celtic with 40-plus points and 10-plus assists since Antoine Walker in 2001, and third overall. (Trivia question: What other Boston great did it? Answer below.)
Anchored by Irving’s ridiculous efficiency — the five-time All-Star hit 18 of 26 shots with just three turnovers — the Celtics overcame some mid-game stumbles to finish the game on a 20-9 run.
While the run at the end of the half was nice, it was also necessary, as the Raptors were yet again ice-cold from beyond the arc. Toronto finished shooting under 30 percent (8-for-29) for the third game in a row. As a former Raptors couch used to famously say: basketball is a “make or miss league.” All game it looked like the Raptors had the potential to steal this one from the Celtics despite the tremendous amount of missing they were doing.
Ensuring they remained in the game was, you guessed it, Captain Neutral Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi did at some points raise his arms in both disbelief and joy at several junctures of the game, his remarkably even-keeled presence and performance allowed the Raptors to have a fighting chance. Leonard finished with 31 points (on 11-of-25 shooting, but still), 15 rebounds, four assists and three steals; his very large fingerprints were all over tonight’s loss. He was at times inefficient (18 points on 16 shots at one point) but his dominance on defense and his bullheaded stubbornness to get to the rim for the benefit of the whistle certainly helped. Speaking of the whistle, is their a superstar in this league who gets less of a superstar treatment than Kawhi? Yes, he ended the night with 11 free throw attempts, but it felt like that number should have been a lot higher (and for some of the other Raptors too).
Unfortunately for Toronto, Kawhi couldn’t do it all himself. The one-game rest for Serge Ibaka did wonders for his energy reserves and overall pep (he finished with 21 and 4), and Pascal Siakam (16, 9 and 2 assists) continued to be the whirling dervish Raptors fans have come to love. But the lack of depth on the wing reared its ugly head as the game wound down. First OG Anunoby left the game midway through after a nasty fall, then Danny Green (who had a good two-way game going) fouled out on some questionable late whistles jostling for position. Add in the injuries to C.J. Miles and Norman Powell, the Raptors simply ran out of manpower to close this game out. You can only skate by for so long with Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet (struggling in his own right) guarding Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving — especially the latter.
Carter Jr., drafted seventh overall and drawing comparisons to the Celtics’ Al Horford, was averaging more than 26 minutes and 11.5 points a game through Thursday. But it’s his defensive game that has everyone talking. It’s early, but he’s on pace to become just the second teenager in NBA history to average two blocks a game. He’ll likely see a lot of Valanciunas, the fifth pick in the 2011 draft, who was averaging a career-high 13.1 points in a career-low 19.4 minutes per game heading into Friday’s game in Boston.
The Celtics aren’t going to get 43 and 11 from Irving every night, but the team’s supporting cast, by and large, had an encouraging performance. Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Marcus Morris all reached double-digits in points while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.
The team also moved away from it’s usual high-volume 3-point shooting, which had an become a problematic tendency on offense. Despite entering the game ranking third in the NBA in three-point shots with 37.4 per game, the Celtics attempted only 26, their second-lowest total of the season. Irving noted that change after the game.
CRUNCH TIME ISO
Even in the go-go, up-tempo current NBA, games between evenly matched teams often turn into slugfests, with the defence turned up and offensive execution at a premium. Scoff at ‘iso-ball’ all you want, but there’s a reason games are full of it in key moments, as the shot-clock winds down and the defence digs in. It was on display in almost all the key moments of what was an outstanding early season matchup between the Raptors and the Celtics.
The loss was the third straight for Toronto, dropping their record to 12-4 as they kick off a four-game road trip. Their season series with Boston is now split 1-1. They have two games left and they could be significant as it’s easy to imagine a Toronto-Boston conference finals. In that scenario, home-court advantage could be the difference and in tight playoff games, it’s often the team that has the best or most shot-makers that tilts the balance.
Kyle lowry shot just 3-for-12 from the field and was not happy about it afterward.
“Missed a couple of shots, then I had a really bad turnover … We’ve just got to be, er, I gotta play better,” Lowry said. “I’ve been playing pretty bad lately, shooting the ball pretty badly.
“I’ve got to find a way to get a rhythm, get it back going. The last couple of games I haven’t been playing well, but that’s the ups and downs of the season. I take it very seriously. It bothers me when I don’t play well.”
He’d like to see the team bother Irving a bit more, as would head coach Nick Nurse, who lamented the inability to force the Celtics star into jump shots instead of layups, even if some of them were of the circus variety.
“We were working pretty hard (to score) and he was coming down shooting a quick layup. It just kind of changes the momentum or even the spirit of our guys when one guy (is) getting it pretty easily at one end and we’re working pretty hard,” Nurse said.