What is so fascinating about this Eastern Conference race is that every contender, despite its record, despite some approaching 50 wins, has an opponent that is a bugaboo.
The Raptors can’t beat the Bulls. The Hornets have lost twice at home already to the Celtics. The Hawks have lost to the Heat three times. The Heat have lost twice to the Celtics. The Celtics, well, they had lost three times to the Raptors, a team they once had hopes of challenging for the Atlantic Division crown.
Those hopes are long gone, replaced by aspirations to grab the third seed in the East behind the Cavaliers and Raptors. To reach that goal, the Celtics sorely needed to beat the Raptors on Wednesday night at TD Garden in the final regular-season meeting between the teams.
The Celtics were hammered by 14 points last Friday at Air Canada Centre, even with the Raptors coming off a grinding victory the night before against the Pacers. That game was never close. Toronto blitzed its well-rested opponents early and then cruised, leaving the Celtics angry about the officiating and their doldrums against their newest rivals.
Wednesday was another grinder. The Celtics watched an 11-point lead sliced to 1 early in the fourth quarter, with James Johnson at the free throw line hoping to give the Raptors their first lead since late in the second quarter. Johnson missed both, the first stroke of luck the Celtics had received against Toronto this season, and they turned that good fortune into a 22-11 game-ending run for a 91-79 win.
Now, the Raptors were without All-Star guard Kyle Lowry, who was a late scratch because of a sore elbow, and key reserve Patrick Patterson (ankle), but it was still a critical victory for the Celtics.
In early November, the Celtics believed they were the equals of the Raptors, and Toronto shot that notion down with a dominating 113-103 win. Two months later, the Celtics headed to Canada, where they stayed with the Raptors most of the way before falling, 115-109.
And last Friday, they allowed Luis Scola to score 17 points in a nine-minute, first-quarter stretch as the Raptors pulled away, 105-91. While the Celtics were reluctant to admit it, that loss was particularly piercing because the Celtics had beaten every other Eastern Conference team except the Raptors.
Coach Brad Stevens walked into the interview room following Wednesday’s win and floated the “the most important game is the next game” line. And he believes that. Stevens refuses to focus on one opponent more than another; that would be a sign of disrespect.
“I think you always want to . . . you’re focused on the next opponent, you’re trying to play your best against the next opponent,” Stevens said. “But certainly a team that’s beaten you three times, there’s a part of you that — a necessarily competitive side of you — that wants to play better. And our guys have some of that.”
The Celtics had to be relieved after finally beating the Raptors, regardless of who was missing for Toronto. The matchup remains unfavorable to Boston. The Raptors are big in the paint with Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo. They have the best backcourt in the Eastern Conference with Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. And they have athletes coming off the bench, including Terrence Ross, who usually gives the Celtics problems.
“It was very important,” said Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas. “I think every team in the league knows it’s hard to beat a team four straight times. We wanted to get one. This was an important game for us and we did it.”
Now, maybe there were some psychological games played by Toronto coach Dwane Casey by sitting Lowry only an hour before game time. Lowry participated in the morning shootaround and looked prepared to play. But the Celtics will take any victory over a superior team at this point, especially embarking on a difficult five-game trip.
Lowry’s presence may have made the win a bit more rewarding, but the Celtics took pride in how the win was executed.
They held the Raptors to 34.8 percent shooting, including a combined 15 for 50 from Ross, DeRozan, and Lowry’s replacement, Cory Joseph.
They snapped Toronto’s 33-game winning streak — a real source of pride — in games where the opponent scored fewer than 100 points. They also prevented DeRozan from living at the line, and outscored the bigger Raptors, 48-36, in the paint.
The Celtics played like they did during their 14-game home winning streak. They prevailed with defense and offensive execution down the stretch. They came away feeling chipper heading into two days off before their opener of their trip at Phoenix.
Some games indeed do mean more than others.
“We’re not really staying up at night saying, ‘We can’t beat the Raptors,’ we think we’re capable of beating anybody,” said swingman Evan Turner. “But obviously we play great games and they’re a talented team and always tough.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.