The Toronto Raptors could have earned their 50th win of the season Friday night, captured the Atlantic Division title and clinched the No.2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
Those accomplishments will have to wait for at least a few more days. Instead, the defending champs stunk out the gym in a very uncharacteristic night versus a conference rival they could soon see in the NBA playoffs.
The Raptors collected their first loss inside the Orlando bubble, and it was a doozy. The third-place Boston Celtics walloped the second-place Raptors 122-100, Toronto’s most lop-sided loss of the season.
The Raps never led for a second on Friday. Poor shooting and plenty of turnovers led to a long troubled night. Fred VanVleet led the struggling Raps with 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting. His fellow starters made just 16 of their 45 shots. For the first time in four games since the re-start, the Raps allowed an opponent to surpass 100 points.
Jaylen Brown, scored 20 points while starring for the Celtics, Jayson Tatum had 18, Kemba Walker 17.
“It was a funky game,” said Toronto’s Norman Powell.
It snaps a seven-game Toronto win streak, which included four straight before the shut-down.
The Milwaukee Bucks have already sewn up the top seed in the East. The Raps (49-19) hold a three-game lead over the Celtics (46-23). A victory would have clinched the No.2 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference for Toronto and secured their sixth Atlantic Division title in seven seasons. They will have to wait at least a couple more days to do those things.
The Raptors unveiled their latest initiative in the Black Lives Matter conversation before Friday’s game. The team emerged in pre-game t-shirts featuring their senior basketball advisor Wayne Embry, who was the first Black general manager and team president in NBA history. The shirts honoured the trailblazer Embry with the phrase “Because of you”, the same words once written by Barack Obama when he signed a photograph of his inauguration for the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis.
“We’re hoping that some other teams pick up on some of the other great historic leaders in the NBA and roll out a similar night of recognition for somebody as great as Wayne,” said Raptors Coach Nick Nurse. “He’s just a warm, genuine, great leader, gives me great advice, makes me feel comfortable, always encouraging, and I just really, really enjoy Mr. Embry, and I’m really proud to be wearing this shirt, and I’m really proud of the organization for having this night.”
Nurse’s team struggled mightily right from the first tip. They bumbled into a fast 12-2 hole while starters clanked nine of their first 11 field goal attempts. The Raps shot an abysmal 26 percent in the first quarter, suffered with turnovers and trailed 21-14 going into the second.
Boston’s dominance continued as Toronto kept floundering. The Raps’ wide-open looks refused to fall – especially for VanVleet and Siakam. Boston feasted on Toronto turnovers and converted them into their own buckets. Pascal Siakam struggled in his matchup with Brown.
Nurse got fired up and earned a technical foul. Then Lowry put his body on the line to draw his NBA-leading 34th charge of the season. Those two things seemed to ignite the Raps and they went on a 7-0 mini burst.
While they showed a little moxie late in the half – like a combined 14 points frome VanVleet and Lowry – the Raps still trailed 52-37 at half-time. That tied for their lowest-scoring half of the entire season.
Despite their coach clapping and imploring them, the Raps sunk further and further into the quicksand. At one point, the Celtics went on a 31-12 run. Toronto emptied its bench for nearly the whole fourth quarter.
“We couldn’t get any offence to energize us,” said Nurse.
The Raptors will meet either the Orlando Magic or the Brooklyn Nets after concluding their final four seeding games. On Sunday afternoon, they’ll face the Memphis Grizzlies, Marc Gasol’s first game against his former team. The two teams will wear throwback jerseys.