Raptors takeaways: Kyrie Irving outduels Kawhi Leonard

Kyle Lowry spoke with members of the media following the Toronto Raptors loss to the Boston Celtics. Lowry was critical of his play and spoke on the team’s overall play early on in the season. Courtesy: NBA TV Canada.

The Toronto Raptors failed to cling on to a late fourth quarter lead against the Boston Celtics before getting outscored 16-9 in overtime. Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving went back-and-forth for much of the thrilling game but it was Irving who had the last laugh, scoring or assisting on every Celtics bucket in overtime.

Here are five takeaways from the tough 123-116 loss.

CRUNCH TIME ISO

Even in the go-go, up-tempo current NBA, games between evenly matched teams often turn into slugfests, with the defence turned up and offensive execution at a premium. Scoff at ‘iso-ball’ all you want, but there’s a reason games are full of it in key moments, as the shot-clock winds down and the defence digs in. It was on display in almost all the key moments of what was an outstanding early season matchup between the Raptors and the Celtics.

The loss was the third straight for Toronto, dropping their record to 12-4 as they kick off a four-game road trip. Their season series with Boston is now split 1-1. They have two games left and they could be significant as it’s easy to imagine a Toronto-Boston conference finals. In that scenario, home-court advantage could be the difference and in tight playoff games, it’s often the team that has the best or most shot-makers that tilts the balance.

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The Raptors are deep and talented and – in Leonard – have a gifted shot-maker and difference-making defender. Leonard had 31 points and 15 rebounds but he was outdone by Kyrie Irving who had 43 points and 11 assists, with seemingly every bucket some twisting, slithering, well-defended looking impossibility. That’s his game though. And when he wasn’t scoring down the stretch, he could watch Jayson Tatum deliver or see some signs of life in Gordon Hayward’s game.

Failing that? Pitch out to Al Horford, left wide-open as the defence runs to everyone else. The Raptors have a chance to be a really good team, but in the tight moments of a tight series, who has more guys that can get buckets when they matter?

The Raptors’ attack was humming at times, but in the game’s final possessions and overtime, it got stuck in the mud, the ball stopped moving, and the Celtics pulled away. The Raptors had three assisted baskets in the final 10:33 of the game, and at times, it seemed they barely had that many passes. If Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan were still with the club, people would be losing their minds. The Celtics, meanwhile, had options.

1-4/4-1 PICK-AND-ROLL

Usually when a ‘big’ sets a screen for the point guard, the hope is that the point guard will get isolated on the opposing big and the quicker, more skilled player will attack the big man in space and either get an open jumper, a blow-by for a lay-up or a paint attack which draws help and opens things up for a cutter or catch-and-shoot three. Another option is for the big who sets the screen to take the guard to the rim if the defence switches and punish him in the paint.

When Pascal Siakam sets screens for Lowry or – for that matter when Lowry sets a screen for Siakam, all bets are off. Siakam is excellent at walking a smaller man down to the rim and using his post-game to great effect, but he might be even better attacking smaller defenders off the dribble. At least twice in the third quarter he ran pick-and-roll with Lowry and ended up with Irving checking him at the three-point line.

Siakam’s not much of a shooter, but he’s so rangy and quick Irving couldn’t handle him off the dribble either. Of course, he can do it against guys closer to his own size, too, hitting a spinning lay-up over Jayson Tatum to give the Raptors an 82-78 lead heading into the fourth. Siakam scored 13 of his 16 points in the second half, several of them attacking smaller defenders off the dribble like this.

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BALL STICKING TO THE KLAW

Before the late-game iso-ball kicked in, Leonard seemed determined to share the wealth against Boston and he drove deep and pitched out for some easy assists to Danny Green, who fouled out late in the fourth quarter.

It was a similar story early on against Detroit on Wednesday. The problem was later in the game, when things got tight, the ball stopped in Leonard’s hands far too often, as his 52.6 per cent fourth-quarter usage rate against the Pistons would attest. That combined with his five fourth-quarter turnovers tells the story. It’s tough to find a balance, because Leonard can be so effective in isolation. He overwhelmed Marcus Smart, one of the league’s best defenders, on multiple possessions. But the Raptors will be a better team when he can facilitate more comfortably – it would be great to see them run more pick-and-roll – with the option of him breaking it off and going iso when the moment requires.

This pick-and-roll that ended up with Leonard alone on the too-slow Aron Baynes might be the perfect blend.

VANVLEET STRUGGLES CONTINUE

Fred VanVleet’s woes don’t seem any closer to being solved. Last season’s super-sub started the game 0-for-5 from three in the first half and finished 0-for-6. This, after coming into the game shooting just 35 per cent from the floor. VanVleet shot 41.7 per-cent from three last year.

He missed three games with a toe strain earlier so it’s fair to wonder if there’s an issue there. “He’s probably not 100 per cent healthy,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He’s not getting the ball where he normally gets it to. He’s affected by that. But there’s nobody tougher. He’s gonna be out there playing, battling and scrapping. We’ll … hopefully try to get through these two games and then try to rest him a little bit until we get to the next part of our road trip.”

Maybe they should rest him sooner. Where the Raptors’ bench unit was money in the bank last year, it’s been overdrawn this season and VanVleet is one of the reasons why – he was a team-worst -21 against Boston. It didn’t help that OG Anunoby left the game at half with a sprained right wrist. On the bright side? Delon Wright was very effective all game and soaked up VanVleet’s crunch-time minutes.

Also: VanVleet shot just 35-per-cent from the floor and 32-per-cent from three through 15 games a year ago before catching fire, so no need to panic yet.

CELTICS TURNING POINT?

It will be interesting if a win like this sparks the Celtics, who are now 9-6. This time a year ago they were 13-2 and in the midst of a 16-game winning streak and an eventual 22-4 start. At the time, they had already lost Hayward to a broken leg in the first moments of the season and were about to lose Irving to knee and shoulder problems.

Given that start, that talent and the way the stripped-down Celtics came within one game of advancing to the NBA Finals last year, it seemed inevitable that Boston was positioned to romp after integrating Hayward and Irving.

If it’s possible to be under-achievers through 15 games of an 82-game season, the Celtics are that. There is no reason they should have come into the game with the NBA’s 24th-rated offence. But Irving is starting to cook after a slow start and while Hayward is so far a ghost of the player that was an all-star in Utah – he averaged 22/5/3.5 with a true shooting percentage of .595 in 2016-17 compared with 10/5/3 and .487 so far this year – contributing down the stretch to a big win should build his confidence.

Tatum looks primed to roll. If the Celtics take off, this could well be their launch pad.

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