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Raptors hold off surging Celtics to stay atop Atlantic Division

Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry prepares to shoot the ball as Boston Celtics forward Amir Johnson defends during the first half at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Celtics 114-106.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports

The Toronto Raptors had lost two in a row in rather ugly fashion, with the prospect of three straight a distinct possibility as the charging Boston Celtics pulled into the Air Canada Centre on a wintery Tuesday night.

Boston has been peering at Toronto's back all season in the standings and, predictably, was growing rather tired of the view.

A four-game winning streak, along with the continued inspired play of point guard Isaiah Thomas, had pulled the Celtics to within one game of the Raptors' hold of first place in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.

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What would normally constitute a throw-away contest in the midst of a long season suddenly had some jam for two teams not yet ready to cede ownership of the East to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We've had two losses, which is not a reason to panic," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said before the game. "But just the way we lost. So everything goes all into the mix.

"Our focus, our energy, our toughness – whatever the adjectives you want to use has to be in play."

The Raptors (25-13) needed all that and then some, overcoming a 16-point disadvantage in the third quarter to register an enthralling 114-106 victory and maintain the Celtics' (23-15) second-banana status in the division, at least for the time being.

Trailing 84-80 heading into the fourth quarter, the Raptors staged a furious rally that lifted the capacity crowd time and time again from their seats in delirious ecstasy.

The comeback started in earnest when Kyle Lowry launched a three from well beyond the arch while falling flat on his back in the process. The ball swished through the hoop, and the crowd cheered lustily as Toronto moved ahead 104-102 with less than three minutes left.

Boston would come back to tie on a Thomas layup, but the Raptors took over after that, with two free throws by Jonas Valanciunas giving Toronto the lead for good at 106-104 with about two minutes left.

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A DeMar DeRozan field goal, a turn-around jumper from 16 feet, followed up by a nice reverse layup with about a minute to go would ice the game.

DeRozan would finish with 41 points on the game to go with 13 rebounds. Lowry would finish with 24 points and nine assists.

Thomas would lead the Celtics with 27 points.

"It was a bloodbath," Casey said afterward, referring the physical bent of the contest. "It was nip and tuck all the way."

Although a game against the Celtics these days is anything but a soft touch, Tuesday's game did offer a bit of schedule relief for the Raptors as it represented just the second time they have played consecutive games at home in more than a month.

The Raptors were wearing their retro Toronto Huskies uniform for the event.

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Toronto came into the game eager to move on from an unsightly two-game losing skid, coughing up big leads to both the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets in back-to-back outings over the weekend.

It has been more than a calendar year since Toronto last dropped three in a row.

Boston's rise in the East as a powerhouse can be tied to the continuing prowess of Thomas, their diminutive point guard who has developed into one of the NBA's most dynamic performers.

Thomas came into the Toronto game averaging 28 points an outing, saving his best for last. His average of 9.5 points in the fourth quarter of games leads all Eastern Conference players.

Taken all together it is quite the rags-to-riches story for Thomas, who was the last player selected in the 2011 NBA draft.

"You're high beams better be on when you go in the fourth quarter against Thomas," Casey said. "He's an example of what this league should be about – a kid drafted, what, 60th, back was against the wall his whole career.

"Now look at him. He's one of the best players in the league."

One game back after missing four with a left knee strain, Casey elected to give Patrick Patterson his first start at forward this season, hoping his length and athleticism would help slow the Celtics.

It was a cold start for both offences, with the Raptors managing to secure a 23-18 lead in the first quarter off 9-of-24 (37.5 per cent) shooting. The Celtics only hit on 8 of 22 (36.4).

The pace picked up in the second quarter, Thomas in particular fearlessly weaving his way toward the basket for a couple of nice layups.

The Celtics rattled off an 11-0 run late in the quarter that lifted them into a 53-43 lead before settling for a 55-46 advantage by the break.

They would extend their lead to as many as 16 with about five minutes left in the third before the Raptors closed with a flourish to cut Boston's lead to 84-80 heading into the fourth.

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