Kawhi's Presence Throws New Wrinkle into Atlantic Division Rivalry

TORONTO – Kyrie Irving, human basketball wizard, needed only one sentence to summarize his thoughts on Kawhi Leonard's impending impact on the Toronto Raptors.

“I know when he’s on me,” Irving told Celtics.com Friday morning, “I can’t play around with the basketball.”

That statement holds significant meaning coming from the mouth of the NBA’s greatest ball handler.

Irving, along with the rest of his teammates, will need to be conservative with the basketball tonight when they face off against Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and the Raptors in primetime on a national stage.

The Raptors made the bold move this offseason to deviate from their comfort zone and acquire Leonard, along with sharpshooter Danny Green, from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for a package highlighted by four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan. In Leonard, Toronto acquired what Jayson Tatum called Friday morning “the best two-way player in the league.”

Boston is accustomed to facing off with a dynamic scorer in Toronto, seeing as DeRozan averaged at least 20.0 points per game during each of the last five seasons. But Leonard is a totally different animal at the defensive end.

“He’s a Defensive Player of the Year award winner,” Irving said before Friday morning’s shootaround, “so he’s shown that he’s capable of being that consistent kind of on-ball threat as well as off-ball threat.”

Irving knows that the game changes when he is matched up against Leonard and his massive hands. Those mitts, combined with Leonard’s elite instincts, almost always bog down offensive players in one-on-one situations.

“He puts in that stick hand, or he starts shifting you one way or another,” Irving said, “you just gotta go by him as best you can or try to get a screen up and get him up off you.”

Tatum, who will match up with Leonard tonight for the first time in his young career, is well aware that isolation ball simply won’t work against a defender of Leonard’s caliber.

“If you just stand still, catch it and try to attack him when the defense is loading up, that’s probably going to be really, really tough,” Tatum admitted. “But if you swing and you cut and come off a screen or a pick-and-roll – you’ve just got to try to keep him moving as much as possible.”

Tatum, Irving and the Celtics clearly respect Leonard’s abilities at the highest of levels, but they are in no way intimidated by their new divisional rival. Irving has scored 20-plus points nine times against Leonard-led teams, including a career-high 57 points scored March 12, 2015. Tatum, meanwhile, views the matchup as an opportunity to build upon his own reputation.

“I want to prove myself and gain the respect of all the best players in the league,” Tatum said. “He’s definitely one of them.”

Good players don’t garner the types of comments Tatum and Irving made Friday morning; those comments are reserved for the best of the best.

The Celtics will face off with one of them Friday night, as a new wrinkle is thrown into this divisional rivalry that features the two most feared teams in the Eastern Conference.

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