Kawhi Leonard

Celtics play their best with something to prove

Celtics play their best with something to prove

BOSTON - One of the big questions entering the 2018-19 season was how the  Celtics would respond to a new burden of expectations. The Celtics, with the return of a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, were essentially anointed the team to beat in the East and a red carpet was rolled out to the NBA Finals.

Still, even as the Celtics were being crowned, the Raptors were busy acquiring Kawhi Leonard. The Bucks were salivating for another opportunity to show their young core - headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo - was ready to truly contend. And, this week, the Philadelphia 76ers spiced up their own young roster with the addition of Jimmy Butler.

Entering the showdown Friday night with the visiting Toronto Raptors, the Celtics find themselves in a more familiar position than their lofty preseason billing. Beset by uneven play, the Celtics (8-6) sit tied for third in the East (alongside a Pacers team they lost to at the start of a 1-4 road trip) and the Raptors already own a 3.5-game cushion over the Celtics.

But if we’ve learned anything about these Celtics, it’s that they typically play their best basketball when they have something to prove. They’ve heard the whispers wondering if they are as good as they were made out to be and acknowledge that their play through 14 games has done little to suggest they are.

That could change quickly. Starting with tonight's visit from the Raptors, and continuing with Saturday at home against Utah, the Celtics can quickly reassert themselves as a championship-caliber squad and wash away much of the uneasiness from their uninspired start.

A very agreeable schedule through Christmas should only help the team further build momentum. But tonight's game is a statement game, a chance to not only atone for an early season loss in Toronto, but remind the rest of the league of Boston’s potential.

Maybe that’s why Kyrie Irving’s face lit up Wednesday when asked about the looming matchup with Toronto.

“Obviously, one game at a time, but that’s just a competitor’s dream to be going against the best of the best,” said Irving. “Obviously, early-season when we played them in Toronto it wasn’t who we are now, or what we’re trying to grow into. So I think it’ll just be a great test for us. They have a lot of great players that we all well know. So, just up for the challenge.”

No one is naive enough to think that all that ailed the Celtics was cured in one lopsided win over a lottery-bound Bulls team. But it was a nice jolt of confidence before Friday’s showdown. 

Tonight goes beyond the standings and it's much too early to get worked up about how seeding in the East will eventually look. Homecourt advantage is a luxury and something the team can jockey for in March and April. Regardless of tonight's outcome, the Celtics should be there pushing the Raptors and Bucks at the top of the East at season’s end (ESPN’s Basketball Power Index currently projects the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics to finish with three of the four best records in the NBA, trailing only the Warriors).

Tonight is more a chance for Boston to really lock in, put together the sort of 48-minute effort they’ve so clearly lacked, and remind even themselves of how good they can be.

Boston’s NBA title odds have started slipping. NBA observers are fairly questioning if a healthy Leonard makes the Raptors the true favorite in the East. But just when everyone starts to discount the Celtics is when they typically start to play their best basketball.

Said Irving: “We just have to be up for the challenge. I’m excited for that game.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.


NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

How to watch or stream the Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors game

How to watch or stream the Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors game

The Celtics host the team they need to catch for supremacy in the NBA's Eastern Conference, the first-place Toronto Raptors (12-3), tonight at TD Garden, part of potential revenge tour of teams that have beaten them in the young NBA season.  

HOW TO WATCH

ANALYSIS AND REACTION

BEFORE THE GAME: At 6:30 p.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with hosts Kyle Draper, and Brian Scalabrine, with Mike Gorman, Tommy Heinsohn, Abby Chin courtside at the Garden. Along with coverage from NBC Sports Boston Celtics Insiders A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the livestream

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch Draper and Mannix break down the first two quarters on Halftime Live presented by Ace Ticket. Watch on NBC Sports Boston  or click here for the livestream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the livestream. t

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ

DURING THE GAME, FOLLOW US 

@NBCSBOSTON

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

ON TWITTER

 

BY THE NUMBERS

 

FAVORED GREEN

The Celtics are slight favorites tonight, according to OddsShark.

BEST AND WORST

Chris Forsberg ranks the top five and the bottom five across the league. The Celtics didn't make either list.

STARTING SOMETHING? 

A. Sherrod Blakely on why Gordon Hayward should remain a starter.

 

GOING TO THE VET?

Kyrie Irving downplayed his comments about the need for a veteran in the locker room. And Danny Ainge didn't know quite what Irving had been getting at

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Toronto's good. The addition of (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard? Even better

Toronto's good. The addition of (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard? Even better

TORONTO – Only 15 seconds into Friday’s game between Boston and Toronto, Kawhi Leonard and those enormously large hands of his had a steal.

By halftime, he was trending towards a double-double with nine points and five rebounds, a reminder to us all why he’s widely considered the best two-way player in the NBA.

And the performance he put on against the Boston Celtics only confirmed his status as he led the Raptors to a 113-101 victory over the Celtics (1-1) which was Toronto's seventh straight home win over Boston, and 11th in their last 12 meetings.

Leonard finished with a game-high 31 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in as many games this season with Toronto (2-0).

“Just went out and tried to lead by example,” Leonard said. “Coach (Nick) Nurse and Kyle (Lowry) did a great job of calling some plays and giving me the ball when in rhythm, and (I) made shots.”

Said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens: “He is a great player, and he is a great two-way player. He certainly looks really good.”

Boston’s Kyrie Irving also had high praise for the two-time All-Star.

“He’s just a special talent,” said Irving who led the Celtics with 21 points.

Which is why so much of the Toronto offense went through Leonard who forced Boston to try and double-team him at times which had mixed results.

Marcus Morris, one of several Celtics tasked with defending Leonard, is quick to acknowledge how talented a player Leonard is.

But he also recognizes a lot of Toronto’s offense flowed through him, making it all the more likely for him to put up big, eye-popping numbers.

“That’s the biggest thing; he’s getting the ball every other play,” said Morris, referring to Leonard’s 10-for-25 shooting night which was 11 shot attempts more than the nearest teammate. “He’s a good player, been a good player; not taking nothing away from him. But he getting the ball every play? You gonna get 30. That’s how I feel.”

But what Leonard did was more than just score a bunch of points.

He dissected the Celtics defense in every way imaginable, whether it was beating someone off the dribble for a score, drawing a foul, or draining a 3-pointer.

Leonard had almost as many free throw attempts (nine) as the entire Celtics team (10), in large part because of the mismatches the Raptors were able to create for him via pick-and-roll switches or just initiating the offense quickly when he was being guarded by a Boston player who was at a clear disadvantage.

“Anytime he goes through you to try and score I don’t think you are doing anything wrong coverage-wise,” Stevens said. “I think when he gets to the rim uncontested or you are fouling him, then I think we have to do a little bit better. He’s going to create some of that stuff.”

And when he does, it makes an already tough Toronto team all that more difficult to beat.

His arrival has not only bolstered the Raptors roster, but also meant four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry has to adjust to having a different running mate.

“The transition has been fine; I’m a true professional,” Lowry told NBC Sports Boston. “At the end of the day, I have two good teammates coming in (Leonard and Danny Green). They’ve got championships. With that kind of pedigree coming in, you accept it … they got what we want. It’s been a smooth transition.”

It certainly looked like it, particularly down the stretch when Toronto closed out the game with a 12-2 run.

“Just some miscommunication on our end as well as some effort plays, including myself,” Irving said. “Just some mistakes down the stretch, that’s all. Turnovers here and there, they got up, Kyle (Lowry) hit a big three and then a step-back. Kawhi (Leonard) had a wide open shot. We had some good looks down the stretch too; just couldn’t capitalize. Just need to be better down the stretch.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Celtics easily on your device.

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE