The Celtics’ medical staff asked Rajon Rondo questions, trying to gauge whether the blow to the head had knocked him silly.
The point guard answered correctly. And after No. 9 received just as many stitches to seal up a gash, Rondo wanted to return.
“A couple people didn’t want me back out there,” he said Wednesday night.
Yet in his eyes, there was never a question.
“I just want to win,” said the Celtics’ captain.
“I hate losing.
“I just hate losing.”
And so after taking the hit from Toronto Raptors guard Greivis Vasquez in the third quarter, Rondo returned in the fourth, when his team was trailing, and he wore a beige bandage between his eyes that stretched up to his forehead.
“When he came back on the floor, I just thought we were going to make a run,” said Jared Sullinger.
The Celtics did, but it wasn’t enough. Despite a strong effort by Sullinger, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter, including 12 straight at one point, the Celtics fell, 99-90, at TD Garden.
It was the Raptors’ first win in Boston since Jan. 23, 2008, snapping an 11-game skid.
After trailing by as many as 15, the Celtics pulled within 84-81 after Sullinger hit the second of three consecutive 3-pointers.
But Boston came no closer than 3.
Sullinger had a game-high 26 points and tied his career high with four 3-pointers. Rondo had 9 points and 15 assists in 32 minutes.
The Celtics (23-48) lost for the seventh time in eight games and will face the Raptors again Friday in Toronto; Rondo said he might wear a mask for that game. “A black mask,” he added wryly, a subtle nod to one of his rivals, LeBron James, who wore a black mask after breaking his nose earlier this season.
Terrence Ross led the Raptors (40-31) with 24 points. Kyle Lowry scored 23 points and DeMar DeRozan added 20. Jonas Valanciunas was a menace in the paint, with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Overall, the Raptors held a 40-28 advantage in points in the paint, an area of weakness for the Celtics recently.
And behind Sullinger, the Celtics’ bench outscored their starters, 51-39. Avery Bradley was the only starter who scored in double figures, with 16 points.
Stevens said Jeff Green, who shot 3 for 9, had a stiff neck and, “he looked miserable, to be honest.”
But the Celtics started off hot behind Rondo, who accounted for his team’s first 13 points with 2 points and 5 assists. The Raptors adjusted and held a 31-22 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Celtics answered with a 13-0 run, but the Raptors closed the first half on a 15-5 run to take a 55-46 lead into the locker room.
Ross canned a 3-pointer to beat the third-quarter buzzer, giving the Raptors a 77-62 lead entering the fourth. The Celtics fought from there but, again, had nothing to show for it when the final buzzer sounded.
“I did not think we were great through the first 2½ quarters,” Stevens said. “I thought we were great defensively in the last quarter and a half with a few exceptions. It wasn’t like we weren’t pursuing balls.
“We were in there; we were just not the highest hand to get them.”
Indeed, the Raptors just made tough shots, none bigger than Lowry’s contested 3-pointer with 1:38 left that stretched Toronto’s lead to 96-90. Ross hit a triple on the Raptors’ next possession that iced their win.
“There’s not really much you can say, I feel like we played some good defense, they just made good shots,” Bradley said.
Chris Johnson was a spark off the bench for Boston, as he scored 13 points.
“Chris makes us better, there is no question about it,” Stevens said. “He’s a really solid basketball player, but at the same time they [Toronto] are playing with really solid basketball players, too.”
And for the Celtics, much of the talk after was about Rondo.
When Rondo exited the game in the third quarter, Stevens said, “I thought maybe he broke his nose.”
Said Sullinger: “When I saw him went down, I just knew we needed somebody to bring a different type of energy. He had the energy all night, he was doing all the right things. It was time for somebody else to step it up and I thought that should have been me.”
But the Celtics weren’t surprised he returned.
“That’s what kind of player he is,” Bradley said. “He’s tough, he wants to win. I knew he’d come back without skipping a beat and he gave us a chance to win the game at the end.”
“Yeah, but we still lost,” Rondo said. “We’ve got to find a way to get stops in the last couple minutes of the game. They hit a couple big threes and that was pretty much it. We’ve got the same team Friday and a chance to redeem ourselves.”
He might be the masked man. Maybe.