It was a bleak, six-week stretch to begin the NBA season the Toronto Raptors can look back on and lay the blame for the predicament they faced heading into Wednesday’s game against the Boston Celtics.
Must-win games do not normally roll around for teams just venturing into a season’s second half. But four miserable wins in the first 23 games can change things pretty quick.
Although they have regrouped of late, the Raptors are still paying the price for the pathetic start that essentially put their playoff hopes on life support.
An aging Celtics crew arrived at the Air Canada Centre in a wobbly state as well, having lost point guard (and NBA assist leader) Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
“They were writing us off even before the injury,” Celtics ace Paul Pierce noted wryly before the game.
But the Celtics had reeled off four consecutive victories without Rondo to maintain their tenuous grip on the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
If the 11th-place Raptors are serious in their desire to make a run for that final playoff spot, winning meaningful games, like Wednesday’s, is a must.
Unfortunately for the Raptors (17-32), their propensity for blowing late leads once again cost them dearly, as the Celtics (25-23) fought back in the fourth quarter for a 99-95 victory at the Air Canada Centre.
The Raptors carried a 79-69 advantage into the fourth quarter, before Kevin Garnett and company forged a workmanlike comeback in what was an oft-tedious affair.
“I thought we came out tip-toeing into the game where I thought they came out the hungrier team,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “I thought we got that mojo back after halftime but we didn’t start the game with the same type of excitement and enthusiasm and the fight that we have to steop on the floor with, and that was disappointing.”
Garnett, who finished with a game-high 27 points to go along with 10 rebounds, delivered the dagger, nailing a 12-foot turnaround jumper in the face of Toronto defender Amir Johnson with 46.6 seconds left to play to boost Boston’s lead to 96-91.
With Boston up 96-93, the Raptors got a big defensive stop, but DeMar DeRozan was unable to control the rebound and Boston was awarded possession on an out-of-bounds ball with 18 seconds remaining.
Toronto newcomer Rudy Gay led the Raptors with 25 points and 12 rebounds, although he went 1-for-9 from the floor in the fourth, where the Celtics outscored Toronto 30-16.
Pierce, a veteran of 15 NBA seasons, says the Celtics know they are in for a tough haul to nail down a playoff spot this season without Rondo.
“Every game from here on is obviously important, especially when you’re the eighth seed and you’re clinging to that spot,” Pierce said. “So with the injuries, we don’t have a lot of room for error. We almost have to be perfect, night in and night out.
“Every game has to be like a playoff game for us the rest of the way.”
Johnson was anticipating a scrappy affair against Garnett, who still has plenty of game in his 36-year-old legs and remains one of the game’s best trash talkers.
“It’s going to be a man’s game,” Johnson said before tip-off. “You know they like to play bully ball and we just got to hit them right in the mouth.”
There was little fight in the Toronto defence in the opening half, allowing the Celtics to hit on 54.3 per cent of their shots from the floor (19 of 35), which helped lift Boston into a 50-45 lead.
The Raptors were hoping the return to the lineup of seven-foot power forward Andrea Bargnani, who missed 26 games with a torn right elbow ligament and strained right wrist, would help give them a lift.
Bargnani came off the bench in the first quarter to a smattering of boos from the hometown crowd and proceeded to score 11 of his 13 points in the opening half, draining four of his five shots.
The Raptors came out in the third quarter with renewed passion and, led by 13 points from Gay, stormed back to secure a 79-69 advantage heading into the final frame.