About 20 minutes after the Celtics’ 123-116 overtime win over the Raptors was complete on Friday, center Aron Baynes was heading toward the showers when he passed forward Jayson Tatum sitting at his locker with his feet in a bucket of ice.
“J.T., let me take a look at your stats real quick?” Baynes asked, before reaching into the icy water and pulling out a soggy stat sheet that had somehow ended up there.
Tatum didn’t realize that Baynes was just kidding, so he handed Baynes a dry stat sheet and told him he could use that one instead. Baynes told Tatum that he was just making a joke about a stat sheet being in ice water.
“Oh,” Tatum said sheepishly. “Kyrie did that.”
If ever there was a night for Irving to dispose of a stat sheet, though, this did not appear to be it. The All-Star point guard was scintillating. He made 18 of 26 shots and finished with 43 points and 11 assists. Prior to Friday, he had never topped the 40-point and 10-assist marks in the same game.
Coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that when Irving is rolling like he was against Toronto, he tends to tweak his game-plan in real time, partly just to let Kyrie be Kyrie, one of the most dynamic offensive players in the world.
Later, Irving was asked what it feels like to be in a zone like that. He paused.
“It’s pretty peaceful,” he said.
In several moments in the fourth quarter, though, it looked like the Celtics might let Irving’s command performance go to waste. The Raptors, who quickly claimed the top spot in the Eastern Conference at the start of the year and have yet to relinquish it, led by 4 points and had the ball with less than one minute left in regulation.
But then Gordon Hayward, who played a season-high 39 minutes and had perhaps his finest all-around game of this season, came up with a steal under the basket. The Celtics raced the other way and got a ferocious one-handed dunk from Tatum, who scored 19 of his 21 points after halftime.
With the shot clock winding down at the other end, Kawhi Leonard missed a tough shot from the baseline and Pascal Siakam was called for an over-the-back foul going for the rebound, and Hayward tied the score with a pair of free throws with 24.5 seconds left.
After a timeout, Leonard then let the clock run down before Marcus Morris forced him into a tough 18-footer that hit the front of the rim, sending the game to overtime.
“Honestly, I was just trying to hold him from getting to his right hand,” Morris said. “He still got right, but the whole thing was a fadeaway.”
In the extra session, the Celtics were almost perfect. They made all six of their shots and all four of their free throws, and the Raptors had no answer, as Boston snagged its most impressive win of this young season.
Just five days ago, Boston trailed Toronto by five full games in the Eastern Conference standings. Even though there is still a long season ahead, it was important for the Celtics not to lose contact with their division rivals this early. But this two-game winning streak combined with Toronto’s three-game losing streak has quickly sliced the deficit to 2½ games. There is no need for panic anymore.
“In order to be considered great, you’ve just got to be consistent,” Irving said. “So that’s where we’re trying to get to.”
The Celtics made a season-high 52.8 percent of their shots, and they were most encouraged by the way they scored.
Boston entered the night averaging just 37.6 points in the paint per game, the lowest mark in the NBA and 3 points worse than the next closest team. On Friday they scored 50.
They also entered the night averaging 19.1 free throws per game, 29th in the league. And on Friday they attempted 24.
Much of the damage was done by Irving, who said he noticed some indecisiveness by the Raptors in pick-and-roll sets, so he attacked.
“Any time we get to the rim like that, in any game, that’s when our runs start,” Irving said.
Added Stevens: “We need to do a better job attacking the paint, period. I thought Tatum made a couple of good plays late again, but Kyrie’s ability to get in there is so unique that we just need to be better at that.”
Leonard finished with 31 points and 15 rebounds to lead Toronto, but he could not finish off the Celtics in regulation, when he had the chance.
The Celtics led by as many as 13 points in the second quarter, but that lead evaporated like many of their others have this season.
The Raptors reached the free throw penalty early in the third and they made the Celtics pay, attempting 15 foul shots in the period. Two free throws by Kyle Lowry with 3:25 left gave Toronto its largest lead, 78-68.
The Raptors led, 86-78, early in the fourth with Irving on the bench. Then Irving reentered the game and provided an instant jolt, pouring in 11 points over a four-minute stretch, with one dazzling shot after another. A runner by Serge Ibaka put Toronto ahead, 102-97, with 3:18 remaining, but the Raptors could not maintain their edge.