Nothing like a sense of urgency and the shorthanded Toronto Raptors to help the Celtics shake their woes. Although the Raptors were hardly a litmus test, the Celtics definitely looked more confident and more comfortable as they continue to improve and progress.
And that progress is being closely examined by team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who may be inclined to end the new Big Three era before the season concludes if he determines that the club is too old and ineffective to make another title run.
Last night was a good start to make a good second impression after a five-game losing streak. The Celtics ended the worst skid of this Big Three era as Rajon Rondo tallied 21 points in less than three quarters and Kevin Garnett looked more energetic and productive in a much-needed 96-73 win over the Raptors at TD Garden.
The Celtics received a scare when Rondo was smashed to the floor by Toronto’s Linas Kleiza with 2:12 left in the third quarter on a drive to the basket. Rondo landed awkwardly on his right wrist and left the game. He was diagnosed with just a sore right wrist and said he could have returned, but he wasn’t needed.
The play briefly brought back memories of Game 3 of last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals when Rondo dislocated his left elbow after a collision with Miami’s Dwyane Wade.
“I know what a dislocated elbow feels like and it wasn’t that so I was thankful,’’ Rondo said. “My wrist was throbbing. This was different. I think it was more painful, honestly, at the time. I was just trying to focus on breathing, but the other one was just more of a shock and I just kind of went numb.’’
Rondo had been stellar offensively, pushing the pace against the overwhelmed Toronto defense, although his line was unusual. He did not record his first assist until the 6:01 mark of the third quarter and finished with a season-low two.
But he helped the offensively inconsistent Celtics post two 29-point quarters and shoot 47.9 percent.
Paul Pierce led Boston with seven assists, but he didn’t stick around to discuss his performance. After a report speculated that several teams are waiting for Ainge to put Pierce on the trading block, he missed 7 of 10 shots, including three layups. But he was able to play facilitator as the Celtics took an early 6-2 lead and never trailed again.
“He was terrific,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “My favorite play of the game by Paul, he could tell that Ray [Allen] was struggling a little bit getting his shot. And Paul clearly had the shot off the pick and roll. And he held it just long enough for Ray to [get] open and gave Ray a three. I thought that was just such a . . . those little plays, they just help your team later in such big ways. Ray clearly appreciated that. And Paul knew what he was doing. Those little things, man, they really help team-building.’’
The Celtics turned a 6-point halftime lead into a 22-point advantage and cruised to their first win since Jan. 4 against the Nets. It was a difficult two-week span for the Celtics, who were beaten by four playoff-caliber teams and looked terrible in stretches.
Ainge has put the onus on the starters to play better, and last night was a marked improvement.
“I’m hoping that this team does turn it around and starts playing better,’’ Ainge said before the game “I don’t expect a miracle that all of a sudden it’s going to get better overnight. Is it incrementally going to get better? I hope that it can.
“Like I’ve always said for the last five years, our best players playing at the top of their game is always the biggest issue.’’
Monday’s loss to the Thunder provided encouragement and Rivers maintained that his team was showing signs of offensive improvement while the veterans were getting into better shape. Garnett attempted only seven shots last night but tallied 15 points and added seven rebounds in 25 minutes. The blowout enabled Rivers to limit his starters to under 30 minutes, and allowed him to give players such as Greg Stiemsma and JaJuan Johnson some playing time.
Another positive sign for the Celtics was their first-quarter production. After failing to post at least 20 points in the first period in five of their past six games, they ran out to a 29-14 lead, using 60-percent shooting and 13 points from the aggressive Rondo to build a lead they would never relinquish.
The Raptors limited the Celtics to 30-percent shooting in the second quarter while DeMar DeRozan and former UMass standout Gary Forbes combined for 13 points as they closed the deficit to 44-38. Forbes led the Raptors with 18 points in 19 minutes. Leading scorer Andrea Bargnani missed his fourth consecutive game with a strained left calf.
A 24-8 run to begin the second half essentially sealed the game for the Celtics, and the Garden began to resemble the place where they usually are so comfortable.
“We thought we should win the game,’’ Rivers said. “But when you’re going through a losing streak, you don’t take anything for granted because confidence is such a major factor in sports. As a coach, I was concerned.’’