Kawhi Leonard Stellar as Raptors Beat Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Celtics

Mike Chiari@mikechiariFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2018

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 17:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors looks on during the second half of the NBA season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Scotiabank Arena on October 17, 2018 in Toronto, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors made a statement Friday night, beating the Boston Celtics 113-101 in an early-season Eastern Conference clash at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Raptors small forward Kawhi Leonard turned in a standout performance for the 2-0 Raptors, registering a game-high 31 points to go along with 10 rebounds and three assists.

The Celtics, who fell to 1-1, received balanced scoring throughout their lineup in the loss, as all five starters scored in double figures.

After struggling in the season-opening win over the Philadelphia 76ers, both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward showed marked improvement Friday.

Irving finished with a team-high 21 points as well as six assists and four rebounds, while Hayward pitched in 14 points and seven rebounds.

Boston wasted a solid shooting effort from three-point range, as it connected at a 38.9 percent clip. The Celtics struggled from inside the arc, though, as Toronto out-shot Boston 46.7 percent to 40.4 percent overall.

Leonard Makes Raptors Team to Beat in Eastern Conference

After posting a double-double in Toronto's season-opening win against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Leonard was even better Friday, and he made it clear that the Raptors are a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.

Although he was only 10-of-25 from the field, Leonard was aggressive and decisive throughout the night, and he attacked the basket on numerous occasions:

He led Toronto with 36 minutes played and is showing no ill effects of the quad injury that cost him nearly all of last season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Chris Walder of The Score noted that Leonard is seemingly playing with no limitations:

Chris Walder @WalderSports

I think Kawhi Leonard is healthy, you guys.

When the Raptors traded for Leonard, they knew they were getting an elite two-way player who contributes in all areas when healthy.

Leonard did precisely that against the Celtics and led Toronto to victory against an arguably more talented team:

There is a lot of basketball left to be played this season, but Jay King of The Athletic observed that Kawhi looks poised to be in the MVP conversation provided he can remain healthy:

Jay King @ByJayKing

Kawhi Leonard came back the same MVP candidate he was before he left.

Two seasons ago, Leonard finished third in MVP voting behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The Raptors were a strong team for the past several seasons with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry as their nucleus, but they couldn't find a way to get past LeBron James and the Cavs.

With LeBron now a member of the Los Angeles Lakers and Leonard bringing a more complete game to the table than DeRozan, the Raptors are a serious threat to win the Eastern Conference.

Boston will likely have something to say about it before the season over, but with Leonard playing like a top-five player in the league, Toronto finally has the superstar it has long needed to get over the hump.

Hayward, Irving Approaching Midseason Form Despite Loss

The scoreboard made Friday's loss to Toronto look more lopsided than it actually was, and Boston emerged from the game with several promising takeaways to build upon.

Chief among them is the fact that Hayward and Irving played significantly better than they did in the season opener.

In that win over Philly, Hayward and Irving combined to go just 6-of-26 for 17 points, as they were both clearly rusty after missing time last season with injuries.

Hayward missed all but one game in 2018-19 with a gruesome leg injury, while Irving missed 22 regular-season games and Boston's entire playoff run with a knee ailment.

Considering Hayward has played barely any competitive basketball over the past year, there was a lot to like about his game against Toronto.

He went 6-of-13 from the floor, was active on the boards and contributed in all areas, much like he did throughout his tenure with the Utah Jazz.

Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer pointed out that Hayward essentially looked like himself Friday:

Kevin O'Connor @KevinOConnorNBA

Gordon Hayward is playing a lot more like Gordon Hayward tonight.

The Ringer's Bill Simmons added that the one-time All-Star is very close to being the player Celtics fans hoped for when he signed last offseason:

Bill Simmons @BillSimmons

I’m like 3 more good Hayward plays away from a “GORDON HAYWARD IS BACK!!!!!!” tweet

Irving's play was nightmarish against the Sixers, as he needed Jayson Tatum to bail him out from an offensive perspective.

Friday was a far more familiar sight, though, as he shot 50 percent from the field and led the team in scoring.

Most importantly, Irving looked comfortably driving to the hoop, which is among his best attributes:

The Celtics have an embarrassment of riches, and finding the right combination is harder than the Golden State Warriors have made it look.

Hayward and Irving figure to be the go-to guys along with Tatum as the season progresses, and if they continue to improve in the coming weeks, they should be ready for that responsibility soon.

Until that time comes, the onus will be on head coach Brad Stevens to push the right buttons of his deep and talented rotation.

What's Next?

Boston will have a chance to bounce back Saturday when it travels to New York City to take on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, the Raptors will look to improve to 3-0 on Saturday when they face the Washington Wizards on the road.