• The Celtics' victory over the Raptors followed a replicable formula for Kyrie Irving, one that should be continued in the postseason.
By Michael Shapiro
January 16, 2019

It had been a tumultuous week in Boston before the Celtics’ 117-108 win over the Raptors on Wednesday night. Kyrie Irving and Co. dropped three straight heading into the matchup of Eastern Conference heavyweights, adding a dose of drama in the process.

Irving vented to the press regarding a presumed lack of fire from the Celtics’ youngsters after a loss to the Magic on Saturday. Jaylen Brown—a youngster himself entering Wednesday night nine months shy of his 23rd birthday—responded on Monday. “We can't make comments, we can't point fingers,” Brown said. “We just have to continue to empower each other and have each other's back. If you don't, (and) start pointing fingers, everybody's going to go into their own little shell.” A week of frustration came to a head after Boston lost to Brooklyn.

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Wednesday night’s win provided a stark contrast to the previous week’s version of Boston. Irving diced Toronto’s defense for the first 40 minutes and ended the evening with a career-high 18 assists. Boston’s deep cast of complementary scorers feasted off the dimes. Al Horford scored 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field. Jayson Tatum added 16 points, with an additional 18 from Gordon Hayward. Aaron Baynes canned a three late in the shot clock. Marcus Morris conjured a Harden-esque step-back in the first half. There were no shortage of offensive options.

Irving’s first three quarters detailed part of what makes him a five-time All-Star, but his fourth quarter displayed why he’s considered one of the game’s preeminent late-game forces. Irving scored 10 points in the game’s last six minutes, capped by a 31-foot triple with 1:39 remaining. Irving facilitating for roughly 40 minutes is difficult to defend. Stopping his late-game surges is downright terrifying. It’s a replicable formula for Irving, one that should be followed in the postseason. Involve the sizeable cast of scorers throughout the evening, then take over in the final few minutes.

Defeating Toronto could set Boston on a minor hot streak, especially considering the Celtics play four teams .500 or worse before facing Golden State on Jan. 26. But the win shouldn’t absolve Boston of its previous week’s slide, nor the concerns that persisted through the season’s first half.

Boston’s considerable depth can provide headaches. There are plenty of mouths to feed for head coach Brad Stevens, and opportunities for the non-Irving Celtics can be lacking for extended stretches. Questions surrounding Irving’s leadership chops have been a touch overstated, yet it’s no secret life with the 2016 Finals hero can breed tension. The Celtics shortcomings have dropped them to fifth in the East, 2.5 games back of Philadelphia for fourth and six back of the Bucks for first after Wednesday night. Boston’s early-season hiccups may cost them home court as early as the first round.

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Yet even if Boston has to travel to Philadelphia or Indiana in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, it’s hard to envision the Celtics as significant underdogs. Their wealth of quality scorers is unmatched through the East, and Irving is likely the best late-game killer in the conference. Leonard has impressive clutch credentials—don’t forget his 43-point effort against Memphis in the 2017 playoffs—while we’re still waiting on signature postseason moments from Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Counting out Irving is likely a mistake, even without LeBron James by his side.

Perhaps Boston’s early malaise will fade away in the second half of the season. Irving issued an apology of sorts to Brown and his teammates after Wednesday’s victory, reflecting on the past week’s spat. “I’ve gotta empower them,” Irving told reporters postgame. “[Brown] was right.”

Irving has more than enough talent to lean on. Pair faith in Boston’s impressive supporting cast with Irving’s late-game mastery, and the Celtics may unlock a path to their second Finals appearance of the decade.

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