1. Well… that’s more like it! It wasn’t the start to the game Boston wanted, and it got a bit bumpy in the second half, but overall this was a winning formula for the Celtics. The role players did their thing, the bench infused a ton of energy and turned the game around and then Kyrie Irving closed it out.
In addition, Brad Stevens seemed to have the nine players he trusts most available to him: Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford to open the game, with Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Aron Baynes getting all the bench minutes. Some coaches do more with less, and Stevens might be one of those guys. We said in our big picture look, that Stevens might have to make some tough choices on cutting down the rotation, as playing 10-12 guys isn’t feasible. Against Toronto he did and it made all the difference.
2. Above it was mentioned it wasn’t the start the Celtics would have asked for in a big game at home. Boston was sloppy on both ends of the floor and the Raptors got up early and took the crowd out of the game. One of the major culprits was Jayson Tatum, who just seemed off his game. He couldn’t get his offense going and he got beat off the dribble multiple times. Shout out to the many of you that suggested on Twitter that “It’s gotta be the shoes”. Maybe the new kicks needed some breaking in, as Tatum was much better in the second half, especially late in the game.
3. Turnovers were a big part of the early struggles. It was a confounding mixture of guys, primarily Irving, trying to do too much and poor execution. The Celtics threw more bad post-entry passes in the first half of this game than they probably have all season. The team finished with 15 turnovers, but 10 of them came in the first half. It was good to see it get cleaned up after halftime.
4. Last negative, because there were so many positives to close with…It’s well known that Boston likes to switch everything. Often this is mistaken for thinking the team believes all of their players can guard anyone else on the floor. It’s not really that. The real secret to the Celtics defense is that they execute switch-backs and jump-switches better than anyone in the NBA. You’ll regularly see them “scram” (short for scramble) out of a mismatch. But when they can’t execute that strategy, and Toronto is good and smart enough to make it hard to do, the switch everything approach can cost them.
We noted in a previous Takeaways, that Stevens’ energy lineup this year has often involved playing Irving, Smart and Rozier together. Smart can obviously guard anyone. But the Raptors ran some sets designed to make sure it was Irving and Rozier for the scram against a big. Both Serge Ibaka and Greg Monroe got easy buckets because Boston couldn’t scram out of the mismatch.
5. Alright…on to the good stuff! The Celtics bench has had a lot of issues this season. Rozier has been moderately awful for most of the season. Hayward is up and down. Brown spent most of the first half of the year looking lost. And non-Baynes bigs are a series of flashes, followed by some truly bad play.
Against Toronto the Boston reserves were awesome. Stevens and Horford both credited Rozier and his energy for helping turn the game around. Rozier himself said he chose to pick up full-court on defense as a way to get him and the team going. Hayward carried the offense for a large chunk of the first half. Brown only made two shots, but his energy level was high and his ball pressure on defense was excellent. And Baynes’ return was welcomed by all. He just brings a presence in the paint on both ends. And, of course, Baynes hit a huge three-pointer in the fourth quarter.
6. Hayward looked gassed in the second half, but that was because he came in and played all-out in the first half. He scored 16 of his 18 points before the break, but the surprise was his defense. On this play, Hayward took on Pascal Siakam off the dribble, stoned him, then blocked his turnaround jumper:
7. After a quiet first half, Horford came up huge in the second half. He dominated inside, as he score 19 of his 24 points after halftime. To help get him going, Stevens called a set play to get him a layup to open the third quarter:
8. On occasion, Horford will catch in the post and the team will let him go to work. But, like most bigs, he’s largely a dependent player to get his points. On the above clip, he benefits from an Irving assist. On this clip, Hayward finds him for the bucket. Because Boston is full of above average passers and ball-movers, Horford being dependent isn’t only just fine, it’s preferred. Also, it’s never, ever, a bad sign when Horford shows emotion after a big play. It’s usually a sign things are going well for the Celtics.
9. Ok…one more negative, but only as a teaching moment and a sign of where Tatum can become even more devastating on offense. Because teams have caught on that he’ll happily take long-twos, they’ve started to run Tatum off the arc. On this play, Siakam closes wildly, because he knows Tatum will fake and take the mid-range jumper:
It’s not the worst shot in the world by any means. But, if for no other reason than adding variety and making the defense have to account for it, it would be nice to see Tatum take the contact on the wild close and get three free throws. Or side-step into a three-pointer if available. Diversity is what makes the best offensive players so great.
10. Kyrie, Kyrie, Kyrie. You have to imagine this wasn’t the best week for Kyrie Irving. He called out his teammates, missed a game with a bruised thigh and had to endure everyone questioning his leadership, if he really wants to be in Boston and if the Celtics should even want to keep him.
Irving responded with a dominant game. He was engaged and active on both ends. He was trying to get his teammates involved, sometimes too much, as he turned it over seven times. But he also racked up 18 of Boston’s 32 assists (on 46 made baskets!). At each timeout, he was the first one to greet his teammates with a high-five or pat on the back. He was talking with the younger players throughout the game.
Following the game, Irving owned that calling out his teammates publicly wasn’t the right way to handle things. He also made the surprising admission that he called LeBron James to apologize for being a headstrong youngster, and to ask for advice on leading a young team. Some will say that it’s easy to show contrition after a big game in a big win. But this whole episode feels like a turning point moment for Irving, Stevens, the young guys and the Celtics as a whole.
Oh and he also did this, from a mile away with Kawhi Leonard contesting him. Something tells me all that talk of “Should Boston even want Kyrie?” will be much, much quieter today.