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Behind Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum & the Boston Celtics finally looked like themselves

BOSTON — This is how everyone always expected the Boston Celtics to look.

The Celtics weren’t supposed to struggle to score. They weren’t supposed to get frustrated and miss wide-open shot after wide-open shot. They were supposed to be a versatile, ever-shifting offensive monster, with scoring options for days. They were supposed to be able to lift one another up and make playing basketball easier as a unit.

When the Celtics everyone expected actually showed up for 32 minutes (plus overtime) on Friday against the Toronto Raptors, they were able to overcome 16 mediocre minutes and pull out a 123-116 overtime victory against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

This level was there all along.

“We were just aggressive,” Kyrie Irving said. “I think we have to find the happy balance between taking some good threes rather than just waiting for the great ones to come and just attacking the basket. Both teams really just attacked the basket and got to the free throw line, which slowed the game down. When you’re playing aggressive like that I feel like it brings the spirits of your teammates up. It makes it easier just making plays going to the rim.”

Irving was brilliant, pouring in 43 efficient points and dishing out 11 assists.

But when Irving forced overtime and Toronto’s defense clamped down, the Celtics began rallying around him. Gordon Hayward hit a pair of free throws and a turnaround jumper in the overtime period. Jayson Tatum lit up in the fourth quarter and overtime. Al Horford knocked down a mid-range jumper.

Irving’s brilliance made everything easier for everyone else. That was the entire point of this Celtics team, and on Friday, they finally actualized that potential.

“We’re still not playing our best basketball,” Hayward said. “We went through a drought in the middle of the game where they went on a run and we had to claw our way back into the game. We’ve shown numerous times that we’re fighters and we’ll continue to fight. But we have to get to the point where we’re playing 48 minutes of basketball the way we want to play it.”

There will be nights when Irving is the best player on the floor, clearly. There will be other nights when Tatum is the top scorer, or when Horford’s pick-and-pop 3-point shooting is particularly deadly. Hayward may dominate from time to time. 

Some nights, players may be largely left out. After starting hot, Jaylen Brown petered out a bit down the stretch and sat in the closing minutes. All seven of his points were scored in the first quarter, and Boston went to Marcus Morris down the stretch in the fourth to defend Kawhi Leonard.

“Yeah, we have a lot of good players,” Stevens said. “So there’s going to be times when guys that are good aren’t playing at the end. There’s going to be other times when we lean on them, like we did with Kyrie, 38 minutes tonight. I just think that’s just part of it. I thought he did a lot of good things early, and obviously we made some changes at the start of the fourth and he played in that group that got us back into it. I just thought at the end, Morris on Leonard was the way we wanted to go. And it worked out this time, but who knows. We need Jaylen. We need Jaylen to be a late game player for us for sure.”

But even Brown’s early success and late struggles helped demonstrate the point: Boston can survive when one players struggles because others can pick up the slack. In the early going, Brown’s game was working and Tatum was struggling. Later, Tatum and Brown reversed roles, and Tatum helped close the Raptors out.

For now, swapping positive stretches works for the Celtics. In the future, they hope to perhaps put it all together.

“We just show flashes,” Irving said. “In order to be considered great you’ve just got to be consistent. So that’s where we’re trying to get to.”

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