Kyrie Irving’s decibal meter this season has ranged from loud, to very loud, to cringe-and-plug-your-ears like the Toronto Raptors game ops are in charge.
He’s had plenty to say off the court about his teammates off the court and he’s done a ton on the court to show why he can lay claim to being the alpha, averaging 23.5 points and 6.9 assists on the season. He’s was even more dominant against the Raptors heading into the Feb. 26 clash with 30.3 points and 11.7 assists.
Especially in the last encounter in Boston, Irving was at his flame-throwing and distributing best, showing complete disregard for the Raptors defense even when Nurse turned to Kawhi Leonard to guard him late. He pulled up from near the logo, shifted every which way before pulling up in the mid-range, and even sprinkled in some of his patented circus layups with physics-bending spins off the glass. Combine the 27 points he collected off those moves with the 18 dimes he dished, and it was a masterpiece in offensive execution.
While injuries to Irving and Gordon Hayward last season pushed the Boston Celtics to be something greater than the sum of its parts, this season has centered around the former Cavalier, and on Tuesday, the Raptors showed why slowing down Irving is critical in getting the better of the Celtics – found on rivernile casino – by making a lot of their defensive gameplan about him.
Head coach Nick Nurse made mention of just how often the Celtics go to the Irving-Al Horford screen-and-roll after practice Tuesday and how successful it’s been all season. He’d know better than most, as Boston has burned the Raptors repeatedly with it, especially in crunch time.
Right off the bat, the Raptors made sure Irving saw two bodies every time he went to the screen-and-roll, Ibaka showing enough to deter a driving line and forcing Irving into the pass to Horford in much the same vein the Milwaukee Bucks have done to the Kyle Lowry-Ibaka action this season. Unlike previous games against the Celtics where Lowry has spent considerable time defending Irving, Danny Green was handed the responsibility early on and consistently look to pick him up in the backcourt. It was also evident that the Raptors were going to make it a point to keep Irving away from the right side of the floor for good reason.
In this play early on, you can see Green recognize the Horford screen coming to his left and do everything in his power to force Irving the other way. The slight look over his shoulder by Green is Irving’s opening, and the Boston guard quickly looks to attack before Ibaka cuts off the driving lane. Horford’s ready in the pick-and-pop slot and Irving finds him, but that’s exactly what the Raptors are happy to concede.
Here, in the second quarter, the Celtics turn to Marcus Smart as the screen-setter with Horford on the bench and the Raptors stick to the same principles. Green forces Irving to his left and Lowry is ready to challenge. Irving tries to shake him initially, before quickly settling for a contested fadeaway. Again, you live with that.
“That was as well as we’ve helped each other in a long time,” Nurse told the media after the game. “Not maybe all year, but in a long time, and it was early help, it was often.”
A huge assist in defending Irving was Jeremy Lin coming off the bench. Green picked up his second foul with 6:21 remaining in the first quarter, immediately forcing Nurse to call a timeout and adjust. He decided to hand the keys over to Lin, and it proved to be a masterstroke. In 13 minutes that the two spent on the court together, Irving was 1-for-5 from the field and struggled to break free courtesy of smart positioning and a general refusal to fall for any of Irving’s usually tempting feints.
It took him a little bit to make the adjustment, though, as Irving had clearly recognized the Raptors’ strategy and was looking to adjust. In the play below, the Celtics look as though they’re setting up for a dribble-hand-off from Horford to Irving after the latter receives a screen from Terry Rozier, but Boston’s No. 11 recognizes Lin anticipating his arrival for the hand-off and instead holds his position and asks for the ball at the right extended elbow for his only bucket matched up against Lin.
Here, again, Irving tries to lull Lin to sleep by showing he’s accepting the screen that’s coming left, but quickly crosses over right. Lin does a good job of using his body to arrest Irving’s momentum, which also allows Marc Gasol a little extra time to slide over and show on the right side. With Irving’s options taken away, he’s forced to be a passer and Horford misses the open look.
This is a clear example of veterans adjusting on the fly, something that is at a premium on both ends of the floor when superstars quickly look to make adjustments to whatever schemes are thrown at them.
“There were maybe five situations in the film room today where we were going over stuff [and] we weren’t sure we’ve quite gone over with those guys,” Nurse said at Tuesday’s practice when asked about Lin’s “newness” and how he’s adjusting on the fly.
“Defensively, here’s a situation that we call ‘this,’ and I’m not sure we’ve gone over it and there’s so many little things that you’re doing when you’re switching, you’re this, you’re that, you’re over, you’re picking up at this point, you’re not picking up at this point, so, a lot of nuances there that we continue to teach him (Lin).”
When Irving received the ball with a head of steam, Lin generally backed off, not only looking to lure him into taking a mid-range jumper but also buy himself time to position himself to draw a charge or contest at the rim. Lin has drawn as many charges as Victor Oladipo in less minutes which puts him 10th in the league behind teammates Lowry (third) and Gasol (fourth).
The Celtics showed a bit more life in the third quarter, and with a transition opportunity for Irving and an 18-point deficit to cut into, he takes the space afforded to him by Lin with Pascal Siakam on his hip. Lin is on the balls of his feet ready to slide whichever way Irving decides to commit, and once Lin’s able to force him to go into the air and away from the basket, he provides a contest and provides Siakam more than enough time to make the pseudo chasedown block.
“You know who stood out was Jeremy, right, I made the sub to Jeremy and I thought especially the second time around, Danny got his fourth foul and I had to do it again in the second half and I thought he really chased him hard and got underneath him and bodied him … We saw a little bit of Kyle in Jeremy tonight, he was banging some bigger bodies around in the paint, too, and showing some toughness.”
Lin’s crowning moment came a little later in the third, with Irving looking to give him the entire repertoire of dribble moves. Lin did exceedingly well to stick with him even after a dazzling spin move off a left-to-right crossover which Irving clearly thought was enough to get a shot off, but was forced to pass off to Horford in the corner.
While Lin was the clear standout in limiting Irving’s effectiveness, Norman Powell and Leonard also provided some moments of tough defense to keep him to just seven points on 10 shots. The length, strength and versatility of this roster was evident from opening night, but the basketball IQ added at and post-trade deadline is helping this team showcase that their desired ceiling has become just that little bit more tangible.
Meanwhile, Boston’s lack of presence at the trade deadline and buyout market as the other top teams in the East all made moves (Yes, Nikola Mirotic and Tobias Harris but let’s not forget the Indiana Pacers also added Wesley Matthews who’s averaging 13.6 points on 44.1 percent shooting from three) appears to be having a carryover effect. This was a locker room that probably could have used a breath of fresh air but are now stuck with the same issues that have plagued them all season multiplied by the fact that they have clearly struggled to buy into Irving as their leader. The Celtics have now lost all four games out of the All-Star break and six of eight overall after having won 10 of 11 games heading into a matchup with Irving’s former teammate LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
For all the comments Irving has made about his evolution as a leader, teammates not understanding what it takes, and his impending free agency, on Tuesday night, the Raptors left him helpless other than to just stew in his own silence.