BOSTON – Before the game started Boston Celtics head coach Brad Steven seemed to be gazing into the near future, envisioning a moment when two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams would be trading lethal left hooks down the stretch of a close game – like, say, Wednesday night on the parquet floor at TD Garden.
Given the Raptors tend to rely heavily on Kawhi Leonard in such scenarios – he handles the ball more than two times as much as his next nearest teammate in clutch situations – does it make them (or Leonard) predictable to defend?
“This how my words get twisted, right, and I’m on his wall for the rest of his career?
Never, he was assured.
“Well, he’s super hard to defend, that’s why he always gets the ball,” Stevens said. “And you know what, he still scores. That’s what the great players in this league do.”
Skip forward a couple of hours and Stevens was looking like Nostradamus.
After three quarters of back-and-forth basketball in which the Raptors had jumped out to a fantastic start in the first quarter, handed it all back with an egregious second quarter, and then battled back again in the third, it very much looked like Leonard was going to carry the Raptors home.
His first basket of the fourth quarter gave the Raptors their first lead since midway through the second period and capped a rally from being down 16 three minutes after halftime. His second hoop put them up two and a pair of free-throws put them up four. There was a triple and then a ferocious drive through traffic as he shed Celtics defenders like a defensive end throwing aside linemen on his way to the quarterback. He made the free-throw too.
Toronto was up four with 4:22 to play and its MVP candidate was carrying the team and several Celtics on his back.
It was tremendous to watch and the Raptors couldn’t help themselves.
“A lot of times we kind of give Kawhi the ball and get out the way,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry.
When it works it’s a thing of brutish beauty, like watching an expert lumberjack fell a tree with one mighty swing of his axe after another.
But on this night, the Raptors (33-13) were eventually chopped down 117-108 by the Celtics, ending their winning streak at five games. The well finally ran dry. And as has happened more than once as the Raptors get in the grind of close games, Toronto seemed perplexed about what to do when Leonard was closed off.
“Obviously the last three minutes of the game got away from us – and I think almost blame more of it on the offence,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.
“We had a really good rhythm and momentum there for a long stretch offensively then we kind of took a couple of quick shots and didn’t execute a couple of things exactly right, out of a timeout one time and you can’t do that.”
Nurse or the Raptors didn’t have to look far for what does work down the stretch in close games.
The Celtics – who won their fifth straight game at home against Toronto and improved to 26-18 on the year – may have scuffled at times this season, but they can score in tough situations. Their 128.6 points per 100 possession in games that are within five points with five minutes or less to play leads the NBA and outstrips the Raptors, who rank 13th in ‘clutch’ scoring, despite having one of the most dominant starting units in the league overall.
The Celtics’ finishing flourish was on full display Wednesday. Trailing by four with 4:22 to play, Boston ripped off a 17-2 run that slammed the door on Toronto, and it did it by committee, with nine assists on 12 field goals in the final period.
Boston’s all-star point guard Kyrie Irving was orchestrating – he had six of his career-high 18 assists in the fourth, to go along with 10 of his Celtics-best 27 points — but he wasn’t soloing.
Second-year wing Jayson Tatum scored a three-point play and then knocked down a triple – both assisted by Irving; and after Irving hit a pull-up jumper and then a dagger-three to put Boston up five with 1:39 to play, he assisted on a pair of layups by Al Horford.
It was a group effort, but it started at the top with Irving.
“He just did a great job,” said Stevens of his point guard, who had stirred the Celtics pot earlier this week by taking some post-game shots at his younger teammates in the midst of the three-game losing streak Boston took into the game. “Those shots were huge and then the playmaking at the very end … you know he’s a threat to make the right shot [but he] obviously draws a lot of attention and he can usually make the right read off of that.”
The Raptors don’t quite have that mix in their late-game arsenal as of yet. Figuring out how to combine Leonard’s ability to get his own shot nearly at will while still having others available to be threats and make plays themselves could easily be the key to whatever success the Raptors have in the post-season – well, that and hitting some threes. The Raptors shot just 7-of-29 from deep, which exacerbated any other issues.
But the issues are real. There have been signs of improvement – Toronto was decent down the stretch in a close win against Atlanta and executed well enough to survive double overtime against Washington — but the last time Toronto was in Boston it lost in overtime back in November and the offence down the stretch was stagnant and predictable then, too.
“I think we just got comfortable with Kawhi taking over and making every shot,” said Lowry, who recorded neither a point or an assist in the fourth with all 10 of his points and seven helpers coming in the first three quarters. “He is really good and he can do it, but we have to give him some help.”
Even Leonard noted them. He feels the responsibility of being the Raptors’ crunch-time crutch, but he recognizes that it might not be sustainable.
“That’s what I have to do, that’s what I’m here for, that’s what I work for,” he said when asked about his late-game role after going 4-of-7 from the field in the fourth. “We just gotta get some movement going rather than just be stationary out there, even down the stretch, it’s not just down the stretch at times, it’s throughout the game, sometimes when I do have the ball, there’s not movement, just everybody watching me.”
Does Leonard have to move it more? Do the Raptors have to give him better targets? Maybe he should be the finisher rather than the initiator.
Those are all matters that need to be sorted out over the Raptors’ remaining 30+ games as they aren’t the kind of questions that can wait until the playoffs to be answered.
Watching Leonard go to work is one of the best shows in the NBA, but late in games against elite teams, it can’t be the only channel the Raptors can turn to.