TORONTO — Far too premature to say the Celtics are considerably different and considerably tougher than last year’s squad. Yet, they keep providing early examples they are different and tougher.
Scotiabank Arena has not been pleasant to the Celtics over the years, from the duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry hammering away to recently with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors know how to play the Celtics and they know how to beat the Celtics.
So when the Raptors raced to a 10-point second-quarter lead Monday night, their defense causing turnovers, Siakam abusing any of his one-on-one matchups to draw fouls, they appeared on their way to another drubbing of their rivals from the south.
What is different about this Celtics club is their resilience and ability to bounce back from adversity. They punched first to begin the second half, stifled Toronto defensively and then received timely baskets from not only Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, but from the likes of Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet.
The 116-110 win was impressive considering it was the second game of a back-to-back. They have notched consecutive road wins at Brooklyn and Toronto to begin this six-game trip and with every road win, every response from a deficit, the Celtics’ confidence not only in their star power but their depth soars.
Tatum did respond in the second half to lead a 23-7 third-quarter run as the Celtics seized control. But Griffin, given the start with Al Horford resting on the second game of a back-to-back, took advantage of his minutes.
The 32 minutes, 18 seconds represented the most Griffin has played in a regular-season game since Feb. 12, 2021, his final game with the Detroit Pistons. Since then he’s played spot minutes, his role varying in Brooklyn but secure and cemented in Boston.
Griffin does what is asked. Coach Joe Mazzulla needed Griffin to play heavy minutes, with the luxury of an off day Tuesday and Griffin delivered, scoring a season-high 13 points with 8 rebounds and 2 assists. He clinched the game on a layup with 12.7 left to stave off a late Toronto rally.
Marcus Smart returned from a one-game absence with a hip contusion to play a steady floor game and help out with 18 points.
There is no question the Raptors view this as a rivalry and used Monday as a litmus test following an uneven start to the season. Coach Nick Nurse, who enjoys devising schemes to befuddle the Celtics (such as his quirky box-and-ones on Tatum or exposing Kemba Walker on repeated pick-and-rolls).
This time he was determined to force the Celtics to dribble into traffic instead of their customary crisp ball movement. The result was nine first-half turnovers and a handful of sloppy plays. The Celtics committed just two second-half turnovers and used Kornet and Griffin as flashers into the paint when defenses collapsed on Tatum and Brown.
That adjustment displays the Celtics’ maturity and trust. And they are now 5-0 on the second game of a back-to-back, when fatigue can dictate desire.
“We’ve been the best team in the league for a minute and every night they throw a different challenge at us,” Smart said. “It’s just one of those days where you can make excuses and if we would have lost the game, it would have been one of those games where you say it’s the second game of a back-to-back and we’re probably tired and come up with excuses but for us, it shows who we are. No matter what we go through, we’re not going to make any excuses.”
The season is nearly one-third old and the Celtics are the first team to 20 wins, having accomplished their goal of a fast start. And they are also confident in their ability to make adjustments and punch back when they are outplayed at the outset.
“I think we do a good job of not panicking and we do a great job of responding,” Tatum said. “Two guys like Blake and Luke don’t normally play. We got a couple of guys out. Just the way they impact the game and that’s contagious. We’ve learned from previous years and we’ve matured and just continue to grow in that area.”
Again, it’s too early to say this team has completely learned from their errors from a season before, but it sure seems like it through 25 games. The Celtics couldn’t have asked for a better start, especially without Robert Williams, and they were able to win difficult games the past two nights against Eastern Conference contenders eager to find out whether the Celtics are for real.
After leading for the final 27-plus minutes Sunday against Brooklyn, the Celtics led for the last 19 minutes, nine seconds Monday. They are not relenting in the fourth quarter. They don’t go into games hoping to win but expecting to win.
The Raptors used their physicality, drew a slew of fouls, frustrated the Celtics and led by as many as 10. It was a recipe for another disappointing loss in Canada. But the second-half comeback suggests this year is different. And though it’s too early to say, all indications are the Celtics have learned from their past failures and mental lapses — and are better for it.
“It’s hard to win, especially up here in Toronto,” Smart said. “I’ve been on the other end of these games, a few times. It is hard to win in this league, especially here. For us to come out here and win it, and learn and have those years to learn from is big for us.”