TORONTO — You just knew this wouldn’t end well for the Celtics, who have endured more than their share of difficult losses this season.
A furious run. A 4-point lead with 2:20 left. A brilliant stretch from Jerryd Bayless. It had all the makings for a difficult road win. But as the Celtics end this miserable transition season, it became painfully obvious in the waning minutes they would fall short once again.
Amir Johnson’s putback of a Kyle Lowry missed layup with 7.1 seconds left completed a late Toronto rally and the Raptors sealed their first playoff appearance in six seasons by handing the Celtics a disheartening 105-103 defeat Friday night at Air Canada Centre.
The Celtics had a chance to tie but John Salmons fouled Rajon Rondo with three seconds left, limiting Boston’s chance to get a good look at the basket. Jared Sullinger’s forced 25-foot runner clanged off the backboard, ending the Celtics’ eighth loss in nine games.
It was predictable. The Celtics have rallied late only to get turned back because of a scoring or defensive lapse countless times this season. On Friday it was both. The Celtics went 2:39 without a point after taking a 101-97 lead with 3:07 left.
When they got the needed stop following Lowry’s missed layup, Johnson easily followed with the winner.
“We gotta stop getting down 14 every game,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said as he shook his head. “That’s the bottom line and then we gotta finish and that’s as much on me as anybody else. But we can’t constantly be down double figures going into the fourth quarter. To our guys’ credit, they fight, they play to the horn but it’s not good enough if you’re always running uphill.”
The Celtics fell to 3-39 in games they trail after the third quarter.
Frustration is setting in.
“You’ve been asking me this for 70-something games now,” Sullinger said about what can be taken from close losses. “I really don’t know what to take out of that, honestly. We’re fighting, keep continue to fight, and finish the season out strong.”
Boston trailed, 87-75, early in the fourth before a 26-10 run fueled by Bayless changed the game. He scored 7 points during a 15-2 run that ended with a Kelly Olynyk layup for a 4-point lead with 3:07 left. Then the Celtics forced a shot-clock turnover, but Bayless missed a contested 21-footer, Sullinger missed a 6-foot hook shot, and Jeff Green missed a tough fadeaway.
By then, the Raptors had tied the game and DeMar DeRozan was streaking for the go-ahead layup before Green swooped in for a stunning block out of bounds. DeRozan followed with the 10-foot fadeaway for a 2-point lead with 33.9 secoonds left, the final in a series of difficult, contested shots.
“Hey, the difference in the game was him making those tough shots,” Stevens said of DeRozan, who scored 24 second-half points. “Amir Johnson made a great play on the tip-in. We tried to block him out and with the physicality of the game, he made a great play. But DeRozan was great in the fourth quarter, seemingly every time they needed one.”
As they did in Wednesday’s 99-90 loss at TD Garden, the Celtics had nothing but trouble with Toronto big man Jonas Valanciunas and swingman Terrence Ross, who combined for 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots to support DeRozan.
It was DeRozan’s night. He attempted 23 of Toronto’s 45 second-half shots and scored nearly half of their 49 points.
“They were good, that’s what guys who are All-Stars and fringe All-Stars do,” Stevens said. “DeRozan just made shot after shot. We tried everybody on DeRozan at different times. It was hard because a couple of our guys who may have been best on him were on the bench.”
After outscoring their Toronto counterparts, 51-7, Wednesday, the Celtics bench bested the Raptor reserves, 49-28. Bayless sparked the surge but the rally ended when Johnson leaped over Brandon Bass for the putback.
“We’ve got to play better throughout the game,” Bayless said. “There are times where we play well, like you see. There are times where we struggle. We got down, and there has to be a more consistent effort throughout the game. If we can do that, I think we’ll be fine.”
Stevens usually accentuates the positives, even following excruciating losses, but he appears fed up with rallying from double-digit deficits, having to be perfect in critical stretches to secure wins.
“We’re not in the business of hanging in,” Stevens said. “We can’t be in the business of hanging in. We gotta get over the hump and do a better job with that and again I think that’s a 48-minute proposition for us.”