TORONTO — The response to Friday’s difficult road loss to the Spurs was exactly what coach Ime Udoka wanted. The Celtics avoided any major lapses, got major relief on a night when Jayson Tatum struggled offensively, and earned an important road win in Toronto.
The season has been a series of learning experiences, and such was the case against the Raptors Sunday night at Scotiabank Arena. The Celtics focused on ball movement, less individual play and more defensive focus and again held a fourth-quarter lead and made the necessary plays to close out a 109-97 win.
Five players scored in double figures, including 18 from reserve Josh Richardson, as the Celtics prevailed on a night when Tatum scored 8 points on 2-for-16 shooting, including 1 of 5 from 3-point range.
Tatum countered his off shooting night with a career-high 10 assists as the Celtics whipped the ball around the floor for 24 assists on 34 field goals.
After blowing a 7-point lead with three minutes left Friday in San Antonio, the Celtics countered by extending their fourth-quarter lead and using Richardson, Romeo Langford and the soon-to-be Enes Kanter Freedom.
Kanter scored 9 points pulled down 10 rebounds a day before he officially becomes a US citizen and adds “Freedom” to his name. He has been a steady contributor soaking up the backup center minutes in Robert Williams’ absence and he played the entire fourth quarter.
Marcus Smart led Boston with 21 points and added eight rebounds and six assists as the Celtics led for the final 14:29. Tatum looked flustered at times watching shots clang off the rim but he shifted his focus to playmaker.
He dished out five assists in the first 7:39 of the fourth quarter as the Celtics outscored the Raptors 29-21.
“It’s been tough for him [offensively] and he’s been doing a really good job of finding guys,” Smart said of Tatum. “We’ve got to reward him for that. And that’s only going to open up things for him and Jaylen later in the games, when other players can knock down shots. He just kept telling me, ‘I’m going to continue to pass you the ball and shoot it with confidence.’”
It appeared to be another lesson learned in this season of lessons. About four weeks ago, Smart criticized Tatum and Brown for not passing the ball enough when defenses collapse. On Sunday, Tatum was a willing passer and his teammates delivered.
Richardson said he had contracted the flu a week ago, and took multiple COVID-19 tests that were negative. He missed three games, but rejoined the team in San Antonio and then tied his season-high in points in 27 grueling minutes.
After playing the final 5:42 of the first period and first 2:48 of the season, a gassed Richardson asked out.
“That was my biggest thing, just giving the guys [an extra] body,” he said. “I know Rob [Williams] is out and just giving guys options. I was itching to get back.”
What Richardson said was the key to his offensive surge was being allowed to handle the ball more. In his past few stops, he’s been labeled a Three-and-D (defense) player. On Sunday, he assumed more of a point forward role and was able to dribble into mid-range shots.
“I’ve spent a lot of my career being a playmaker,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t understand that. These last few years I’ve just been kind of put in a catch-and-shoot role and that’s not how I like to play. I’m thankful for Ime and these coaches here just letting me be able to go out there and do my thing.”
Fred VanVleet led Toronto with 27 points, but he didn’t record a field goal for the final 17:09. The Celtics chased VanVleet off the 3-point line and forced him to drive into crowds. The Raptors shot just 32.6 percent in the second half.
“We talked about it in the timeout when we went up 13 [in the fourth quarter], we said we’ve been here a few times in this game with double-digit leads and throughout the season,” Udoka said. “It’s time to put our foot on the gas and keep doing what got us here. Team basketball was great [Sunday night]. We weathered the storm and hit some big shots late.”
The Celtics led most of the first half and then watched as Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes hit three 3-pointers in the span of 3:45 to tie the game at 68 in the third quarter. Barnes later added a layup for a 2-point lead before the Celtics went on a 9-3 quarter-ending run.
Al Horford, who had his best offensive game in a few weeks with 17 points to go along with a team-high 11 rebounds, countered with consecutive baskets and Smart gave the Celtics a 5-point lead with a quick-release 3-pointer.
After the Raptors made another run, Richardson countered with a jumper and Tatum scored his second bucket of the game to spark a 14-2 run as the Celtics were never threatened again.
In what has been seemingly a long season already, the Celtics said they learned greatly from their slipup in San Antonio.
“The way we lost that game was definitely tough,” Smart said. “To be able to come back and respond the way we did just shows the growth we’re making. I know we get up here and say it a lot, but it’s true.
“To be able to bounce back against a good team like Toronto, in their house, just shows what type of team we are. The thing about the NBA is you get another chance to go out there and redeem yourself, that was us [Sunday].”