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Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet directs team mates in the first half against Boston Celtics at Scotiabank Arena on Nov 28.Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

While the snow fell thick and fast outside Scotiabank Arena on Sunday in what turned out to be the first unofficial day of winter, inside the home of the Toronto Raptors, things were starting to heat up.

No one was hotter on either team than Fred VanVleet or rookie Scottie Barnes – particularly in the third quarter – with the Toronto pair combining for 48 points. However, it was to no avail as the Raptors lost their second in a row, falling 109-97 to the Boston Celtics.

“They made some plays and we didn’t quite make the defensive plays, but I’m pretty proud of the effort,” head coach Nick Nurse said after watching Toronto lose to a team just two games in front of it in the Eastern Conference standing.

On the plus side, VanVleet scored 20 or more points for the third successive game, and for the fourth time in the past six games, ultimately finishing with a game-high 27 points on 8-of-16 shooting, including 5 of 10 from beyond the arc.

The team’s point guard and de facto leader, who led the NBA in minutes per game entering Sunday’s contest with an average of 38.1, again assumed the role of workhorse. VanVleet chalked up 39 minutes 48 seconds of court time in Sunday’s loss. But Nurse seemed non-plussed when asked about the workload for his on-court leader, particularly given the departure of Kyle Lowry in the off-season.

“He’s having to do a lot,” Nurse said. “… Maybe I can trim a couple minutes here or there, but 37, 38 is roughly where he’s going to be most nights.”

VanVleet seemed more perturbed by the lack of end result than the process, and says he learned a lot from last year when he averaged what was then a career-high of 36.5 minutes.

“Sleeping, stretching, treatment, strengthening, watching film, really dedicating myself to being the best I can be because it’s going to take my best version to get wins on a nightly basis,” VanVleet said afterward.

Following a road trip in which he averaged 11.2 points a game, well below his season average of 14.9 which leads all first-year players, Barnes got back on track slightly here, particularly beyond the arc, going 4 of 9 for a total of 21 points.

And Pascal Siakam continued to improve after his off-season surgery with the forward registering 18 points, the fifth consecutive game in which he has scored 17 or more.

But given the Raptors’ shortened bench – just six reserve players were on the home team’s bench – Nurse was left with little choice but to lean on a few of his biggest performers.

Missing regulars OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr., who have 34 starts between them and a combined average of 37.4 points a game, the Raptors entered Sunday’s game with a 9-11 record. That mark was only fractionally better than the 8-12 it owned at the 20-game mark last season, when its seven-year playoff run ended.

And after Sunday’s loss, its 9-12 record is now identical to last year’s record with the season already at the quarter mark.

Digging the hole a little deeper, Nurse was also without centre Khem Birch, while guard Goran Dragic, who came over as part of the Lowry trade in the off-season, is taking a leave of absence from the team to deal with a personal matter. The former all-star has played just five games this season, averaging eight points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists a game.

Nurse sung his praises before the game, calling him a “good dude,” and a statement from the team said the Slovenian had the support of the entire organization, with no timeline being placed on his return to the roster.

Early on, the home side looked as though it could ride out the absences barely missing a beat, as the Raptors led for most of the first quarter before falling behind just before the buzzer on a three-point shot from Romeo Langford.

But with the Celtics threatening to run away with the game, up nine approaching the midway point of the second quarter, a pair of fast-break buckets energized the crowd and sowed some seeds of doubt, cutting the Celtics’ lead to five and forcing Boston head coach Ime Udoka to call a timeout.

The Raptors finally regained the lead on a VanVleet three-pointer off a Barnes assist with 5:09 remaining in the third, although the Celtics quickly gained it back courtesy of a 9-3 run to end the quarter.

The Celtics never trailed again, pulling away in the fourth to register their fourth consecutive road victory against Toronto.

“Just working,” was how VanVleet described the Raptors’ patchwork lineup on Sunday. “Probably felt how it looked of the most time. I thought guys played with intensity for the most part, but not enough to get the win.”

Coming off a six-game road trip in which the team went just 2-4, Nurse would have been hoping a return to the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena would have been able to spark his team. The Raptors are now one game in to a season-long seven-game homestand, and play 11 of their next 14 games to close out 2021 at home.

Both Nurse and the team need to turn things around in a hurry. Despite playing nine games at Scotiabank Arena, one of lowest such numbers in the Eastern Conference, Toronto is just 2-7 there, which has played a large role in pushing Toronto toward the conference basement thus far.