TORONTO — Brad Stevens remained upbeat, measured, as he always seems to be, even when a fresh loss is eating away at him, as it was late Wednesday night.
“Not any time for any of us to sulk right now,” he said, offering a smile.
The rookie Celtics coach had just suffered his first regular-season loss as an NBA head coach. His team fought back from a double-digit, second-half deficit against the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre, but the Celtics couldn’t close, and fell in their 2013-14 opener, 93-87.
Such outcomes will be expected in what figures to be a lengthy rebuilding process for the Celtics.
An outcome like Wednesday night’s will be expected because the Celtics are a team of new parts that’s learning a new system under the league’s youngest (37) head coach who had no NBA experience before this season.
That outcome will be expected because Celtics are without the reliable scoring provided for so long by Paul Pierce, and without the reliable everything provided by Kevin Garnett. And their best player, Rajon Rondo, is sidelined indefinitely as he recovers from knee surgery.
But the Celtics put up quite a fight against the Raptors, and that was what Stevens, the former star coach at Butler who is tasked with replacing Doc Rivers, harped on most of all.
“At the end of the day, we didn’t do everything perfectly,” Stevens said. “I didn’t coach a perfect game, but I think we can all rest assured that we’ve got a team that will fight, and we’ve got a team that will compete, and we can just shore up a couple of those mistakes, maybe we can come out on the other end of it.”
The Celtics led early, but then trailed by 16 with 8:18 left in the third quarter.
They could have rolled over, but instead they strung together several defensive stops and started running and gunning on offense.
“At halftime we came into the locker room and said we need to pick it up on the defensive end, and that’s what we did, coming out in the third quarter, we got stops, multiple stops,” guard Avery Bradley said.
With that mixture, the Celtics closed the quarter on a 27-11 run to tie the score at 71 entering the fourth. Then Jeff Green, who scored a game-high 25 points, hit a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter to put the Celtics ahead, 74-71.
But, with the score tied at 78 with 7:42 left, Toronto used a 12-2 run to take a double-digit lead. The Celtics came as close as 5, but no closer the rest of the way.
“As long as we keep fighting, I think we’ll be in all the games,” said Green, who made 8-of-16 shots, including 7 of 9 from the free throw line.
Brandon Bass added 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field and 5 of 5 from the free throw line.
But the Celtics lost because of poor offensive rebounding. The Raptors won that category, 19-7, and thus had a strong edge in second-chance points, 28-12.
“We gave up multiple offensive rebounds and for us to win, we can’t allow that to happen,” Green said. “If we get stops, we’ve got guys who can get out in transition. We’ve just got to be mindful of offensive rebounds and trying to get stops.”
Added Bradley, “I keep saying this, we have to be a better defensive team. I feel like it’s harder for teams to guard us when we’re out on the run in transition. So we have to get stops first so we can be able to go and have the ball in transition. That’s one of our strengths, but it all starts on the defensive end.”
In part because of their offensive rebound edge, the Raptors, who were led in scoring by Rudy Gay’s 19 points, had 20 more field-goal attempts than the Celtics.
The Celtics also looked offensively inept in the second quarter, when they scored just 11 points, which led to a 12-point deficit at intermission.
There is much, overall, that the team has to improve upon, and that will hold true for a while.
But for Stevens, that first game is out of the way.
“It’s different, it’s longer, that’s for sure,” he said. “I think I’ll get used to that. I’ve always said, after a day when things don’t go your way, the beautiful thing about basketball is that it’s not football. You don’t have to wait a week. You’re going to play and in this league, you don’t wait more than 24 hours usually. You get another chance to play, another chance to do that again. You gotta get used to it.”
The way Stevens is wired, he has to watch the game film on the same night of the game, and that was his plan as the team prepared to head through customs and board its charter flight back to Boston, where another team had just completed a worst-to-first turnaround that the Celtics hope to complete one day as well.