When the Toronto Raptors last played the Boston Celtics on Nov. 16, Kyrie Irving dazzled down the stretch in a manner few are capable of doing.
At his best, Irving is perhaps the league's best shot maker, a closer with championship pedigree that relishes the spotlight and never shies away from competition.
He can get his shot any time from any place, and when he's cooking, there's not much anyone can do about it.
That was certainly the case in the last meeting with the Raptors and slowing down Irving will be the single most important key to Wednesday's game.
Dominant in the 4th quarter and overtime
A quick look at the box score reveals that Irving finished with 43 points and 11 assists, an incredible night that goes down as probably one of the top 10 performances of the season by anyone given the opponent and manner in which he did it. And yet that by itself doesn't come close to fully articulating just how dominant he was on that night.
If you watched that game, it probably felt like Irving did everything late. It's because he did.
Zeroing in on the fourth quarter and overtime, Irving scored or assisted on 15 of Boston's final 16 made shots, including its final 13 of the game.
Looking back at the tape reveals a few different ways that Irving gave the Raptors fits.
One-on-One puppet master
Let's start with Irving doing what he does best: going one-on-one.
If the NBA held a one-on-one contest at All-Star weekend, there's a decent chance that Irving wins the whole thing. Between his ballhandling skills, shot-making ability and crafty finishing with either hand, he's an almost unstoppable isolation scorer when he gets going.
Here's three different isolation plays down the stretch:
In the first play, there's not much else Delon Wright can do. Irving's ability to essentially post up the 6-foot-5 Wright while isolated 18 feet from the basket before hitting a contested turnaround fadeaway is part of what makes him a transcendant offensive talent. Toronto would probably sign up for this every time and play the odds.
The second and third plays, Fred VanVleet - by almost every metric a very good defender - has no shot. After easily manipulating VanVleet to get to his spot for a short jumper, he does the exact same thing the very next possession. This time, Jonas Valanciunas stays in the paint to help which allows Irving to find Al Horford for a wide open baseline jumper.
That's classic pick your poison.
Perimeter two-man game
In the not-too-distant future, the Celtics could unleash one of the most gifted offensive backcourts in recent memory.
Irving is already there while Jayson Tatum has shown more than a few glimpses of developing into one of the game's best pure scorers.
Three times down the stretch in the last meeting, the Irving-Tatum two-man game showed just how dangerous they can become playing off each other's strengths.
The first one is relatively straight forward. Tatum sets a screen on the left wing before sliding to the corner. Kawhi Leonard shows while VanVleet begins following over the top. Before either has time to react, Irving's already hitting Tatum, who is so wide open he has time to gather, set his feet and calmly stroke a corner 3.
On the very next possession, they go right back to it. This time Danny Green - who starts on Irving - anticipates Tatum's move to the corner and switches, attached at his hip. Wright plays the drive and stays home, allowing Irving to fire off an uncontested 3. Though it's one Toronto probably lives with given it's a 27-footer with 16 seconds left on the shot clock, it shows how the Irving-Tatum two-man game forces a defence to make an almost impossible decision.
Midway through overtime on the opposite wing, both Kyle Lowry and VanVleet stay attached to Irving. He drives it deep enough to the baseline that by the time he kicks it back out to Tatum, Boston essentially has a 4 on 3. Tatum scores here, but watch the defence contort and you'll see both Marcus Morris on the weak side and Gordon Hayward in the dunker spot have wide open looks should Tatum have decided to pass.
Two different designs from two different spots on the court reveals problems that Irving and Tatum propose to even the best game plans.
The double screen with Al Horford
Before Irving went down last season, his pick-and-roll partnership with Horford was on a points-per-play basis the best in the NBA. No other pick-and-roll duo, not even James Harden and Clint Capela, could match its efficiency.
One of the looks Boston likes to give is utilizing a double screen at the top of the key to free up Irving and make three different defenders move in sync.
When Irving checked back into the game with 3:17 left in the fourth quarter, the Raptors led 102-97. It's a situation that Toronto must have felt good about.
How did the Celtics respond? By running the same play three straight times, leading to three straight Irving buckets.
I'm not sure there's much else the Raptors could have done on the first one as Irving hits a tough jumper in traffic.
On the second play, Lowry over-plays and forces Irving back to the left. With Horford remaining outside the 3-point line, Irving patiently waits for Lowry to shade back towards Horford before attacking into Serge Ibaka's chest and finishing with his left hand.
On the final play, Irving never stops, gets to the rim and finishes in traffic. You'll notice, however, how far he pulls in Pascal Siakam to help from the wing. Had he wanted to, the kick out for a wide open corner 3 is right there for the taking (or if Leonard closes, one pass to Tatum leaves a wide open 3 from the wing).
Toronto defended this play three different ways with the same outcome each time.
How do the Raptors adjust?
Nick Nurse threw a ton of different looks at Irving in the first meeting.
According to player tracking data from Second Spectrum, four different Raptors players spent at least 10 possessions guarding him.
Here's how Irving fared against each of them:
- Kyle Lowry: 23 possessions; Irving shot 3-7 with 2 assists and 0 turnovers; Raptors allowed 24 points on those 23 possessions
- Danny Green: 15 possessions; Irving shot 4-6 with 1 assist and 1 turnover; Raptors allowed 14 points on those 15 possessions
- Fred VanVleet: 12 possessions; Irving shot 4-4 with 4 assists and 1 turnover; Raptors allowed 22 points on those 12 possessions
- Kawhi Leonard: 11 possessions; Irving shot 2-3 with 2 assists an 0 turnovers; Raptors allowed 13 points on 11 possessions
It's obviously dangerous to read too much into one game in November, but perhaps VanVleet simply doesn't have the size to bother Irving. Whenever Lowry, Green or Leonard was the primary defender, the Raptors held the Celtics to an offensive rating of 104.1. With VanVleet as the primary defender on 12 possessions, that number sky-rocketed up to 183.3.
While that's certainly not sustainable, the tape shows some concerns with leaning on VanVleet late as he was the primay defender on 5 of those 15 late buckets scored or assisted by Irving.
It's far easier said than done and perhaps foolish given Irving finished with 11 assists, but the Raptors would be wise to force the ball out of Irving's hands more than they did in that second go-around.
He finished with 100 touches in that game, far more than his season average of 74. Even when adjusting for overtime, Irving's touches were up 15% compared to the regular season. That might not seem like much, but in a tight game between two evenly matched teams, the margins are more than enough to swing an outcome.
Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, there's only so much to be learned from a January game. And yet if you watch closely, perhaps the Raptors will learn a trick or two for slowing down Kyrie that carries far more weight in May than right now.
For a Raptors team with dreams of winning big into June, containing Kyrie might be the key to success in 2019.