BOSTON — Forget all the points — and there were a lot of them, a season-high 43 to be exact — or the assists — 11 of those, too. Kyrie Irving almost single-handedly willed the Boston Celtics to an overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors on Friday night but his relentless efforts were maybe best exemplified on the defensive end of the floor where he is far less renowned.
The Celtics trailed by eight when Irving subbed back in with 10:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, coach Brad Stevens left with few options but to go back to Irving early in the final frame with Toronto threatening to run away.
Boston quickly cut its deficit to three but Jayson Tatum lost the ball trying to attack in transition and Kawhi Leonard raced the other way with a chance to stem the Celtics’ momentum.
With a behind-the-back dribble, Leonard left Celtics big man Aron Baynes skidding near the blocks but, as Leonard entered the paint, Irving raced from the opposite side of the floor and with a left-handed swipe, slightly dislodged the ball from Leonard’s possession. Falling to the court, Irving reached out with that left arm and managed to force a jump-ball.
Considering Leonard’s oversized mitts and his pure strength, it was no small feat by Irving to force a tie-up.
Irving didn’t win the ensuing tip on his own but he challenged Leonard enough that Leonard's swipe directed the ball directly to Tatum, and ultimately led to Irving shooting free throws at the other end.
An awful lot happened over the next 13 minutes of play but what was clear in that moment was that Irving was not going to be denied on this night. And time after time he came up with big plays that helped the Celtics emerge with a thrilling 123-116 triumph at TD Garden.
"It’s just not too often during the regular season you get to have games like this,” said Irving. "So you want to take full advantage of them. They’re a great test for your team, on both ends of the basketball floor. A great player in the other locker room [in Leonard]. So you’ve just got to be on your Ps and Qs for the unknown, and that’s the competition. The level of play raises and you’ve just got to appreciate that.”
Irving was otherworldly on this night. Not only did he score a season-high 43 points on ultra-efficient 18-of-26 shooting but he posted 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting during the fourth quarter and overtime.
Only one of those makes came beyond the elbow, Irving hitting a 3-pointer early in the fourth frame. He spent the rest of the night furiously attacking the basket, generating tough-finish layups for himself or slinging the ball to open teammates.
“Oh man, [Irving] made some shots tonight where you’re just like, ‘Wow.' You catch yourself being a fan,” said Gordon Hayward, who turned in a season-high 39 minutes, made the free throws that forced overtime, and played maybe his most complete game since returning from the ankle injury that cost him nearly all of his 2017-18 season.
"When he got into that mode, the whole arena knew where he was going, and so did the Raptors. They just couldn’t stop him. He played tremendous. We leaned on him a lot.”
It wasn’t just the fact that Irving put up big scoring numbers, it was the way he did it. A Celtics team that had fallen in love with long jumpers watched their starters combine to attempt zero first-half free throws. Irving attacked the basket on the first possession of the second half and didn’t stop until the final horn of overtime.
Irving routinely wandered into Toronto’s labyrinth of arms and legs, particularly those belonging to Serge Ibaka and Leonard, and still muscled home incredibly tough finishes.
"I'm kind of used to it,” said teammate Marcus Morris. "I told him he had to have an A in English class because his English with that ball is slim-to-none. I've never seen nobody put the ball at the top of the backboard like that and get the roll. He's a good player, man. He's big for us and he came here to play and we needed every bit of it.”
Celtics players admitted the hardest part of Irving’s brilliance is not getting caught watching it in progress.
"It’s our job not to stand and watch. Continue to cut, move,” said Tatum. "Obviously, he’s putting out a show though.”
Irving has been utterly brilliant in recent weeks, particularly since shedding the afro that he entered the season with. In the eight games he’s played since his haircut, Irving is averaging 28.5 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting overall, including 50 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Add in 6.3 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.3 steals over 34 minutes per game.
And yet the Celtics were an underwhelming 4-4 in the eight games prior to Friday night (Irving didn’t play in one of those losses in Utah). Despite Irving’s individual brilliance, Boston was still struggling to find the consistency the team so clearly lacked out of the gates this season.
Boston could have let Friday’s game slip away but Irving wouldn’t let it. Even as the Raptors pushed their lead to double digits, Irving never stopped fighting back. It’d be foolish to suggest that Friday’s game was a must-win — no November game deserves that sort of billing — but it’s also hard to argue that these Celtics didn’t desperately need a statement win, if simply to reaffirm their position as one of the East’s top dogs.
TD Garden buzzed with playoff-like intensity and Irving played like a title was on the line. It was a refreshing change from the duds the Celtics had often put forth this season.
Now they need to build off of the momentum of consecutive wins.
"We always want to have success. I think striving for it is always a goal,” said Irving. "But you have to have the patience to understand it’s not just coming right away. You’ve got to beat some great teams and build some continuity. I don’t want to say ‘hopefully,’ but I think this test tonight will set a precedent going forward for us.”
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