The streak stopped at nine with No. 9 on the cusp of making his return.
The Celtics earned their first win of 2014 Wednesday night by beating the Toronto Raptors, 88-83, snapping their nine-game losing streak.
“We have a great group of guys around here,” said Jared Sullinger, who had a huge night with a game-high 25 points and a career-high 20 rebounds. “And these guys are not losers.”
It was the Celtics’ longest losing streak since they dropped a franchise-record 18 consecutive games during the 2006-07 season, Rajon Rondo’s rookie year. And Rondo, No. 9 in your program, should make his season debut Friday against the Los Angeles Lakers at TD Garden.
Rondo has been sidelined all season while recovering from knee surgery, but instead of a suit, he wore his jersey beneath warm-ups on the bench on Wednesday. And with 2:34 remaining in the game, the Garden fans began chanting “Ron-do!”
The Celtics were happy to snap their streak, but doing so with the looming return of their best player made it sweeter.
“That’s just big for us, to bring the win in for our leader,” said Avery Bradley, who scored 20 points. “I know he can’t wait until he comes back, and we can’t. I’m excited.”
Rondo was active but didn’t play, leaving the Celtics with just 10 players after the three-team deal that shipped Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to Golden State.
And they held on, despite nearly blowing an 18-point second-half lead, which the Raptors chiseled away at with an 18-4 run to open the fourth quarter.
“I mean, I want to win every single thing I do in life,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of snapping the streak. “But I’m not as concerned about breaking the streak, per se, as just playing good basketball and playing tough basketball. That might be the first game we’ve won all year where we won it on the defensive end of the floor, and there’s no arguing it because we couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”
The Celtics shot a putrid 34.5 percent, but were boosted by outrebounding the Raptors, 58-44, which led to a 25-11 edge in second-chance points.
Then there was Sullinger, who became the first Celtic with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game since Kevin Garnett’s Celtics debut (22 points, 20 rebounds) on Nov. 2, 2007.
“After a while, when you lose so much when you’re not used to losing, the competitive nature takes over and that’s what happened with me,” Sullinger said.
But did he know he was having a career night in the midst of it?
“I didn’t even think about it until Rondo told me, look up at the scoreboard, get one more,” Sullinger said. “I happened to look up and I saw 19 rebounds. I was like, I didn’t even know I had that many.”
Undrafted rookie free agent point guard Phil Pressey made his first career start and finished with 10 assists while helping push the tempo on offense.
The Celtics led by as many as 18 and ended the third quarter on a 15-6 run to take a 73-56 lead. Sullinger capped that spurt by hitting a stepback jumper at the buzzer after receiving a court-length pass from Gerald Wallace. Sullinger scored 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds in the third quarter alone.
“I don’t know what to say, I’ve never seen anything like that,” Bradley said of Sullinger. “He’s just an amazing player and he had a great game.”
Stevens praised how Sullinger kept playing hard even though he had been taking out of the starting lineup recently for a few games.
But asked if it was one of the most impressive rebounding performances he had ever seen, Stevens pointed to Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn, who stood in the back of the postgame news conference.
“Probably not as good as his,” Stevens said, referencing Heinsohn, who once grabbed 23 rebounds in an NBA Finals Game 7 win. “He did a great job, 25-20 is a great night. But I’m pretty sure that’s not close to the record books around here.”
(For the record, Bill Russell once grabbed 51 rebounds in a game, the second-most in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain, who once grabbed 55.)
“Tonight, he was active and aggressive and assertive in going after the ball,” Stevens said of Sullinger. “That’s No. 1. High motors always make great rebounders. No. 2 is, he’s quicker off the floor than people think. And he’s got outstanding hands. Outstanding hands. He always has had that. I’m impressed with his ability to rebound at this level. I wasn’t sure when I watched him play growing up that he’d be able to do that and it’s translated to every level for him.”
Sullinger did have a pair of missed free throws late, but he made his next four to help ice the win.
“We preach free throws, in my family at least,” Sullinger explained. “I know I was mentally getting cussed out by my father, and my uncle that passed away three years ago. They always was on my back about free throws. I knew I was getting mentally cussed out by them. It was only right that if I had another opportunity, I had to make them.”
The Raptors (19-18) entered the game having won 12 of their last 16 since trading Rudy Gay. DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 23 points. Kyle Lowry added 18 points and 12 assists.
And the Celtics earned a much-needed win against a top-five team in the Eastern Conference. They snapped a long streak, too.
When they reconvene at TD Garden, it will be against their bitter rival, the Lakers, and their star, No. 9, should be there with them again, finally.