Kyrie Irving did it again.
The biggest question entering Thursday's marquee showdown was whether or not the Toronto Raptors would find a way to slow down Kyrie Irving .
Just as he did when they met back in November, Irving was once more the difference maker down the stretch in a game between two otherwise evenly matched teams.
Can anybody on the Raptors guard Kyrie?
Over the last two games, this much is true: nobody has been able to guard him.
A scary thought for the Raptors as they ponder a potential postseason showdown with the boys in green is that Irving may have been better on Thursday's than he was in that November meeting in which he finished with 43 points and 11 assists while scoring or assisting on Boston's final 13 made field goals.
27 points and a career-high 18 assists adds up to accounting for a whopping 67 of Boston's 117 points.
And he did it while staring down Toronto's best wing defenders. Unlike the last meeting in which he was guarded primarily by Kyle Lowry with a second helping of Fred VanVleet, Irving spent the majority of Thursday matched up against the Raptors' stable of perimeter length who in theory would at least have the range to make Irving more uncomfortable.
To a certain extent, the theory held up. All seven of Irving's turnovers came against 6'6" Danny Green, 6'7" Kawhi Leonard, 6'9" Pascal Siakam and 6'4" Norman Powell, who provided more resistance than either the 6'1" Lowry or 6'0" VanVleet.
Green and Leonard, two of the very best perimeter defenders in the entire league, are the two Raptors who guarded Irving the most according to player tracking data courtesy of Second Spectrum and it simply didn't matter as he shot 5-10 against them with nine assists.
At the very least, the matchup data reveals a significant adjustment from head coach Nick Nurse who switched things up from the first meeting in which Kyle Lowry guarded Irving for a team-high 23 possessions with VanVleet checking him for 12 possessions, many of which came late in the game and to the chagrin of Raptors' fans, failed spectacularly.
Let's talk about the 4th quarter
When the whistle blew signalling the end of the third quarter, the Raptors were somehow still in it. After trailing by as many as 16 points, they battled back to a more-than-manageable 87-83 deficit entering the final frame.
Kyrie Irving started the fourth quarter on the bench. Here's how Boston fared in the nearly four minutes without him to start the quarter:
- Missed Terry Rozier 3-pointer
- Missed Jayson Tatum 19-foot pull-up jump shot
- Made Gordon Hayward 13-foot jump shot
- Missed Gordon Hayward 17-foot turnaround fade away
- Missed Jaylen Brown floater
- Missed Aron Baynes tip
- Gordon Hayward turnover
- Missed Jayson Tatum layup
- Missed Gordon Hayward 3-pointer
- Missed Jaylen Brown 3-pointer
- Jaylen Brown turnover
If you're scoring at home, that's two points on 1-9 shooting with two turnovers. Without Irving on the floor to start the fourth, the Celtics were an absolute dumpster fire. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Kyrie then started doing Kyrie things.
Over the final eight minutes, the Celtics outscored the Raptors 28-20 on 11-16 shooting with Irving either scoring (4) or assisting (6) on all but one of Boston's made field goals.
Combined with how he played down the stretch of the previous meeting, Irving has now accounted for 25 of his team's 28 made shots in the fourth quarter or overtime against the Raptors.
All of the drama in Boston aside, it's games like Thursday that show the road through the east could very well go through the Celtics. When they're able to put aside chemistry concerns, it's a deep roster that can play on both ends with the ultimate closer willing and capable of taking over late.
As good as Kawhi Leonard has been offensively, he's not Kyrie Irving when it comes to creating offence. Though he can get his own, Leonard's just not the same type of complete playmaker. And if he's not the player that can go toe-to-toe in a one-on-one showdown on nights when Irving has it rolling, it's going to take a team effort to slow him down.
Championships aren't decided in January, nor are trips to the NBA Finals. The Raptors are still a very good defensive team with the bodies and potential to be great. They have the personnel to throw looks at Irving that not many other teams can match.
And yet as we once again learned, they still have a ways to go in their mission to finding out some way to slow down captain clutch.