Celtics turn it on too late, fall to Raptors

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Celtics turn it on too late, fall to Raptors

TORONTO This should not have happened to the Boston Celtics.

Not with something to play for (higher playoff seeding, Atlantic Division crown), not with the need to build on their already strong momentum (they came in with four straight wins), not with the opponent being... the woeful, lottery-bound (again) Toronto Raptors.

But there were the Boston Celtics, dead as can be, well on their way to a disappointing loss to the 20-win Raptors.

And then came a Celtics lay-up, followed by a 3-point play by Paul Pierce.

Suddenly, more than three quarter's worth of putrid play just might be washed away by two minutes of stellar basketball.

But it was not meant to be, as the Raptors made all their free throws down the stretch to pull off a shocking 84-79 upset win over the Celtics.

Sooner or later, the Boston Celtics were due for the inevitable let-down game. That's the only way to explain what happened Friday night in Toronto.

The Raptors, with nothing to play for but pride, took advantage of a lethargic effort.

After falling behind by double digits, the Celtics' finally started playing Celtics-like defense in the game's final minutes, as they frantically fought back to cut Toronto's lead to single digits.

But as much as they needed to get stops, they also had to make shots with the latter proving to be a problem on multiple occasions.

Mickael Pietrus had a number of good looks at the basket, only to see his shot rim in and out - and with it, out went Boston's chances at winning.

The loss did nothing to Boston's chances at winning the Atlantic Division, as Philadelphia lost at home to New Jersey.

Boston (34-25) led by as many as 13 points in the first half, but appeared to morph into what Doc Rivers refers to as "cool Celtics" with an abysmal showing in the third quarter.

There was bad defense, worse offense and it provided just the fuel Toronto needed.

Boston led most of the first quarter with Rajon Rondo once again shredding a team's defense to pieces, racking up seven first-quarter assists as the C's led 20-13 after the first.

C's coach Doc Rivers has talked about finding ways to give his core guys more rest heading down the homestretch of the regular season.

Going to his bench earlier with more bodies is one way to achieve that. In the first half, Boston played 11 players which is a bit unusual considering they've gone with an eight-man rotation for the past few games.

Regardless, the Celtics' main guys played more than enough minutes to off-set any points lost by the backups.

Because truth be told, the Celtics' problems all night had to do with a lack of aggression on the part of all.

Rondo was getting his usual share of assists, but very few came with him attacking the lane.

And eventually, that lack of aggression caught up with the Celtics.

When it did, the Raptors got hot, gained more confidence and before you know it, they were rolling along to an unexpected win.

The Celtics seemed to show some signs of life in the fourth quarter when Rajon Rondo stole the ball and coasted in for a lay-up that cut Toronto's lead to 68-57.

But on the ensuing possession, Alan Anderson nailed a 3-pointer from in front of the C's bench while being fouled by Avery Bradley to give the Raptors a 71-57 lead with 5:56 to play.

Boston responded by getting the Toronto lead down to 10 points following a short jumper by Rondo.

Raptors coach Dwane Casey knew his team was starting to falter, so he called a time-out to get his best scorer - DeMar DeRozan - back into the game with 4:01 to play.

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

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But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth-quarter performance

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth-quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

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Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.