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.

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

Blakely: This could be the start of something big for Celtics

BOSTON -- Prior to this year, the Celtics hadn't been to the Eastern Conference finals since 2012. That trip served as a curtain call of sorts for the last great C's dynasty.
 
But this one, which ended with Cleveland's emphatic 135-102 Game 5 victory Thursday at TD Garden, is very different.
 
Rather than closing another chapter in the Celtics' longstanding legacy of greatness, it could serve as the beginning of a new narrative in the franchise's steady growth.
 
"For us to be in the Eastern Conference finals after the first year of this team really being together, adding additions like Al Horford and Gerald Green . . . I can go down the list of guys that we needed to learn to play with, and for us to talk about where we wanted to be and actually make it, it's a big-time accomplishment," said Avery Bradley.
 
Boston has been among the younger teams in the NBA, with the 31-year-old Green being the oldest player on the roster.
 
But what the Celtics lacked in experience, they made up for with great effort.
 
"The great thing about this is the experience," Bradley said. "We were able to go to the Eastern Conference finals, learned a lot about being in this position, and I feel like it's going to help us for next year."
 
But as we all know, the Celtics will look to strengthen themsevles this offseason, which means there's a very good chance they'll have a different look when they gather again in the fall.
 
How different is anyone's guess.
 
"It's difficult every year whenever you don't have guys back," said coach Brad Stevens. "I think you share a bond (over the course of a season)."
 
Stevens and this group have been together for eight months. Eight months of struggles, successes, frustrating defeats and euphoric victories that brought them to the conference finals, which is where their season came to an end.
 
But as disappointed as the players and coaches are inow, there's definite excitement about this franchise in the very near future.
 
Boston has the No. 1 overall pick in next month's draft, with all indications -- for now -- pointing to Washington's Markelle Fultz as their choice.
 
And their top first-round pick from a year ago, Jaylen Brown, seemed to steadily improve as the season progressed. It was one of the few times in his life where minutes weren't just handed to him, which he admits was a learning experience unlike anything he had ever had, yet he adjusted and played better as the year went along.

"I've had ups, I've had downs, I've had opportunities, I've had mistakes," said Brown. "So I've been learning and growing and improving all year and I'm going to continue growing and improving and prove people wrong, prove doubters wrong."
 
Having the season end the way it did has indeed left a bad taste in the mouths of many Celtics.
 
"I can use it as fuel," Brown said, adding: "I want to get back to the same place I'm at now."
 
Bradley, who was on the 2012 team that lost to the Miami Heat in the conference finals, knows the Celtics are going to do whatever they feel is necessary to give them the best chance at competing for a title.
 
"It's out of our control as players," Bradley said. "We had a great year together. If guys are here, if guys aren't, we all wish the best for each other.

"But I do feel this is a special group. We all gave our heart every single night, played as hard as we could. I respect all my teammates, and I really appreciated playing with all the guys I had a chance to play with this year; a special group."