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Celtics learn early lesson for final exam

The Raptors overwhelmed Jared Sullinger and the Celtics when it mattered most Friday night.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

You figured this whole Atlantic Division takeover thing wouldn't be so easy. Teams aren't rewarded that easily, despite their fortitude and preparation.

It's not that the Celtics were caught off guard by Toronto's execution and precision Friday at TD Garden, it's that they weren't cohesive enough or confident enough — at this point — to stop it.

The Raptors showed why they are considered the best team in the Atlantic Division quintet, a race that is expected to come down to Toronto and Boston by April.

Perhaps it was a little premature for a showdown, Game 2 of the season, and the Celtics looked overmatched in a 113-103 loss. Toronto raced past its opponent with 59 second-half points on 54.8 percent shooting. What's more, the two-time defending Atlantic champions exercised their will by outrebounding the Celtics, 28-14, and holding Boston to 34.1 percent shooting after the break.


The Celtics hung with the Raptors for a half, and that's nothing to be proud of, especially when you consider yourself contenders in the Eastern Conference. Yet this result may have been the most beneficial to the Celtics in the long run.

They now have tangible goals and aspirations. Perhaps an easy victory would have catapulted the Celtics to delusions of grandeur regarding its place in the division. They were nearly flawless in the preseason, won both games in Europe and coasted to wins over their three other division opponents.

This was the first time the Celtics have seen Toronto since late last season, and the revamped Raptors are even more formidable with the addition of DeMarre Carroll and Luis Scola, who combined for 30 points and 14 rebounds.

"We're not as good as these guys right now," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I think that was pretty evident and clear for everyone to see, and so we'll see if we can improve."


It was probably too much to ask for the Celtics to be better than the Raptors at this point, considering most of Toronto's core players are back and have together for the past few years.

After the Celtics valiantly battled to even the game at halftime, Toronto attacked its opponent in the third quarter with aggressive defense and up-tempo basketball. Raptors coach Dwane Casey has shown nothing but respect and regard for the Celtics, telling reporters Friday morning that he wishes they weren't in the Atlantic Division. But he spent halftime Friday night telling his team that it was better than the Celtics, just not playing like it.

"We were playing great defense," Carroll said. "Our offense wasn't clicking, particularly myself. I missed like two easy layups, so coach just told us to go back out there, and, once we started shooting the ball good then keep playing the same defense, we'll take over this game. And that's what we did."

The Celtics acknowledged being soundly beaten by a team that's better in late October. And it left them with plenty to ponder before Sunday's matchup with the imposing San Antonio Spurs.

The Celtics have to improve their ball movement, stop fouling when the opponent is in the bonus, and they desperately need more from their starting lineup.

In two games, the group of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, David Lee, and Tyler Zeller were a combined 26-for-74 shooting (35.3 percent) with a combined 87 of the team's 215 points. They struggled in the third quarter because the starters allowed Toronto to begin the second half with a 15-8 run that gave Toronto a lead it would never relinquish.


They are lacking energy and in the third quarter, when the game was there for the seizing, they allowed the more experienced and passionate team to take control.

The Celtics have all the pieces for success, but it will take a while before veteran newcomers such as Lee or Amir Johnson and command the locker room and call out teammates' faults.

"It's still early, [but] they're a hell of a team," said guard Isaiah Thomas, who led the Celtics with 25 points in 29 minutes. "They came in and handled their business.

"They've definitely, in the last few years, been a pretty good team that you looked forward to playing against.

"We've got to be mentally tough and just forget about this loss, whether it's good or bad, you have to have a short memory."

But the Celtics should keep this defeat in the back of their minds. They can attribute the loss to an off shooting night or fouling too often, but in reality they succumbed to a more skilled and rigorous opponent. And they should let that marinate.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.