Playing their fourth game in five nights, a little let-down might have been expected, even forgiven. The Toronto Raptors were, after all, facing the Boston Celtics, a playoff contender coach Dwane Casey warned had "pit-bulls," and comprised "one of the scrappiest teams in the NBA."
Despite a sloppy third quarter that allowed the Celtics to rally within five points of the lead, the Raptors got right back on track and took care of business, earning an otherwise-dominant 105-91 win Friday night behind 32 points from Kyle Lowry.
The Celtics, who were in sole possession of the No. 3 seed in the East just days ago, have slipped with four straight losses and find themselves in a tightly jumbled Eastern Conference playoff race with Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami, jostling among spots three through six.
The Raptors improved to 47-21 and sit comfortably in second place.
They are a franchise-best 26 games above .500, on course for their first 50-win season. They have won 12 of their past 15 games.
The Raps started Norman Powell on Friday in place of James Johnson, who was sitting with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. Bismack Biyombo was making his third start in place of Jonas Valanciunas after the starting centre injured his hand in Monday's loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Biyombo had nabbed 38 rebounds in his two previous starts, including a franchise-record 25 boards Thursday night in Toronto's win over Indiana.
Luis Scola had a jaw-dropping start Friday night – 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the first quarter alone, including a fast-break dunk and 3-of-4 shooting from beyond the arc, to go along with a pair of rebounds. The
35-year-old Argentinian power forward sparked Toronto's bench in a delirious frenzy with every bucket.
The Raptors held a dominant 30-14 lead to end the first – a season low for a Raps' opponent in the opening quarter this season.
Lowry had a big second quarter and cruised into the half with 14 points as Toronto sat comfortably up 55-41.
Still, Toronto was facing Boston's all-star point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 28 points and four assists in March. He had eight points at the half, but had yet to awaken.
The Celtics came out of the locker room after halftime with more spring, going on a 9-3 run. Soon, the Raptors, who began the night in control, were calling a panicked timeout. Boston kept roaring, to within seven, and then to within five.
"We were getting our butts kicked there, and we knew it was coming," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey. "When someone attacks you like that you have to come out and fight and I thought our guys did a good job of turning around and fighting back. Nothing is going to be easy with Boston."
The team zipped the ball around and after finding Scola early on, seemed stuck in the mud. Scola hadn't scored another bucket since that opening quarter.
DeMar DeRozan went into Friday's game leading the NBA in scoring during March – a month in which he has averaged 30 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Yet he had just five points in the first half on 2-of-7 shooting and had yet to draw any free throws. He's one Raptor who had it going in the third – he rallied for nine points in the quarter, as his team was outscored 33-24 in the stanza and clung to a 79-74 lead.
Toronto burst out with a 6-0 lead to reassert itself. Lowry had a big fourth, appearing to chirp back at a Celtics fan seated behind Boston's bench who had looked to be heckling him much of the night.
DeRozan had 15 points, Scola 17, while Biyombo finished the night with 11 boards, along with two assists and a blocked shot.
"This is what good teams do – we've seen San Antonio, OKC, Golden State, Cleveland – they do it. Those are the things good teams do," said Scola. "Whatever the situation you go out and compete. You don't win every time, you don't play really well every time, but you always compete. When you play at that level, you'll win a lot of games and you're going to be prepared when the time comes."
Thomas led Boston with 20 points, while Canadian big man Kelly Olynyk was easing back, playing in just his second game since separating his shoulder back in early February. He had five points and four rebounds for Boston.
Toronto is 32-11 against teams from the East, with the Bulls accounting for four of those losses.
Next up is a Sunday afternoon meeting with the visiting Orlando Magic.