Boston Celtics: 2012Game59

North of the border, C's play down

April, 13, 2012
Mark L. Baer/US PresswirePaul Pierce's reaction just about sums up the night for the Celtics.
It's been nearly a month since the Boston Celtics turned in a stinker against an inferior opponent. Maybe that's why coach Doc Rivers didn't mind falling on the sword for Friday's head-shaking 84-79 loss to the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Center.

The Celtics established early control, built a double-digit lead with help from a second-unit lineup that featured emergency depth guys like Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, and Ryan Hollins, and seemed poised for a laugher. Instead, the starters fumbled away the lead, a chance to rest and the game, all while a feverish late rally came up short against the Raptors (providing the real stomach punch for the evening).

"By sitting [the starters] that long and not playing a lot in first half, I may have lost their rhythm, I don’t know," shrugged an unconvincing Rivers. "I'll go with that. You like that one? We'll go with that."

Rivers can blame his mildly altered substitution pattern -- it wasn't that far from the norm -- but Boston's starters simply didn't have it on Friday. Playing a non-playoff team for the first time this month to kick off the only back-to-back-to-back of the season, the Celtics clearly were not as engaged as they've been lately. In fact, not since a 120-95 thrashing in Sacramento on March 16 has Boston just flat-out played down to the level of its opponent.

Consider this: The Raptors were without Andrea Bargnani (shut down for the season with calf ailment) and Jose Calderon (swollen right eye); started two guys on 10-day contracts out of the D-League (Alan Anderson and Ben Uzoh); shot a mere 18.2 percent in the first quarter (4-for-22); and were generally willing to allow Boston to steamroll them if so desired.

The Celtics didn't.

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Rapid Reaction: Raptors 84, Celtics 79

April, 13, 2012
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Celtics had no answer for the likes of Ben Uzoh and his 10-day contract.
Rapid reaction after the Toronto Raptors defeated the Boston Celtics 84-79 Friday night at the Air Canada Centre:

DeMar DeRozan scored a game-high 22 points, making all 13 free throws he attempted, including some clutch ones down the stretch as the Raptors held off Boston's feverish late rally. Paul Pierce scored a team-high 18 points for the Celtics, 10 of those points coming in the fourth quarter as he tried to carry Boston back into the game after a cringe-worthy third frame. Pierce had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds but misfired badly on a forced 3-pointer from the left wing. Kevin Garnett finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but it was a forgettable effort from Boston on the first night of a back-to-back-to-back.

This one looked like it was going to be a laugher for Boston. The Raptors shot 18.2 percent (4-of-22) in the first quarter, while Boston opened a seven-point lead after one frame. The Celtics then ran with a second-quarter lineup of Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic, Mickael Pietrus and Ryan Hollins and actually extended their lead to as much as 13. But even with a double-digit lead as the starters returned to the floor, Boston went cold and ultimately got outscored 27-11 in the third quarter to turn the game around. Toronto eventually led by as many as 15 in the fourth quarter, and it was too much for the Celtics to overcome.

The Celtics scored eight first-quarter buckets and Rondo assisted on seven of them. Two in particular stood out, both feeds to Avery Bradley. Boston's backcourt tandem first teamed up on a little alley-oop lob with Bradley skying high from the right side before throwing it down. A minute later, with Bradley running the floor in transition and swooping in from the right baseline, Rondo threaded the needle, leading to a reverse layup and a 19-11 lead with 1:24 to go in the frame. That really should have been enough to put Boston on cruise control, but the car veered off the road in the middle frames.

Despite those seven first-half helpers, Rondo didn't get No. 10 until there was a mere 2:14 to play in the game, when he Pierce on a reverse layup. Rondo finished with 12 assists, extending his double-digit streak to 20 games. What's more, Rondo didn't turn the ball over in 37:16 of floor time, yet the Raptors still found a way to rally back in this game.

The Celtics can take a tiny bit of solace in the fact that the Philadelphia 76ers continue to stumble their way to the regular-season finish line, dropping a 95-89 decision in New Jersey (where Boston visits Saturday night). That means Boston is still up three games over both Philly and New York in the Atlantic Division with seven games to go. Maybe more important to Boston's playoff future, the Hawks stomped the Magic, 109-81, giving Atlanta a one-game edge in the race for home-court advantage in a potential 5-seed vs. 4-seed playoff matchup. Meanwhile, the Pacers throttled the Cavaliers, tightening their grasp on the No. 3 seed with a three-game edge over Boston.

This wasn't the way the Celtics wanted to start this grueling stretch of five games in five cities over six days. With the lead early on, it looked like Boston might breeze by the D-League-caliber lineup Toronto trotted out. Instead, the Celtics' starters sleepwalked through the middle quarters and paid the price when their jumpers wouldn't fall (especially the 3-pointers, on which Boston was 4-of-19 overall, 21.1 percent). Boston went 10 deep for a change, but didn't get to utilize its depth after the second quarter. Yes, after seven playoff-caliber foes in a row, the Celtics played down to the Raptors and suffered a loss because of it. Maybe it'll help promote rest in future games: The No. 3 seed is slipping away and the team remains comfortably entrenched at No. 4.
AP Photo/Winslow TownsonCan Rajon Rondo keep his double-digit assist streak alive north of the border against the Raptors?
After seven straight games against playoff-level opponents, things ease up (slightly) for the Boston Celtics (34-24, 13-15 away) as they visit the Toronto Raptors (20-39, 11-19 home) on Friday night at the Air Canada Centre (7 p.m., CSN). While the Raptors have struggled, this actually marks the start of a grueling stretch for Boston, kicking off its only back-to-back-to-back of the season. To preview the matchup, we play a game of 2-on-2 with colleague Greg Payne.

1. What will you be focused on when the Celtics visit the Raptors?

Payne: A fast start tonight will be crucial, because the Celtics can do themselves a host of favors by beating up on the Raptors early and cruising to an easier win tonight. Given the back-to-back-to-back beginning tonight, Boston should be looking to garner as much rest as possible for its veterans, and tonight's a perfect opportunity for just that. The C's have already beaten up on the Raptors twice this season -- two of the seemingly rare times they've out-rebounded an opponent -- so there's no question the potential is there for an easier victory. Getting guys rest at the start of this grueling three-game stretch could go a long way towards making the following two games much easier to bear.

Forsberg: Being the first game against a non-playoff team this month, it will be interesting to see Boston's intensity level out of the gates. They haven't had to worry about playing down to an opponent in a while. But the Raptors are woeful on the offensive side of the ball and so long as the Celtics brought their defense's passport, there's a chance here to start this trip on the right foot. That said, for all their overall struggles this season, first-year head coach Dwane Casey seems to have Toronto going in the right direction on the defensive end. The Raptors are middle-of-the-pack overall (allowing 0.925 points per play, 18th in the league, according to Synergy Sports data), but Toronto actually ranks second in the league in defending spot-up shooting (which accounts for a whopping 19.5 percent of opponents' total plays and foes are averaging a mere 0.871 points per play). The Celtics need to exploit other areas, like Toronto's inability to defend ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll.

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Jeff Green
16.9 1.7 0.7 34.2
ReboundsJ. Sullinger 8.1
AssistsR. Rondo 9.8
StealsR. Rondo 1.3
BlocksB. Bass 0.9