The Celtics entered this season with visions of becoming an elite team, eager to join the NBA’s ruling class. And while they have crafted a respectable record, they have been unable to dent any opponents who sit on a higher pedestal.
Entering Friday, the Celtics had faced the Cavaliers, Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets — all teams with winning percentages of .680 or higher — and they had lost to all of them. And this night, against another powerhouse, was no different, as the Raptors used a devastating third-quarter run to take a 101-94 win at TD Garden.
There are plenty of convenient excuses for these struggles. The Celtics were missing Al Horford and Jae Crowder in two of the losses. On Friday, they were without their injured All-Star point guard, Isaiah Thomas.
But the Raptors also could point out that they were without starting forward DeMarre Carroll, or that they had played on Thursday night while the Celtics rested.
Or they could just come into Boston, control the second half, and leave with yet another win, which is exactly what they did.
The five elite teams the Celtics have fallen to this season have lost a combined 27 times. Some teams with inferior records are finding ways to beat these squads, even if only occasionally. If Boston wishes to ascend, it must find a way, too.
“We still have a ways to go,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and I think it’s something where we have to keep working to get to the point where we are so good at controlling what we can for 48 minutes, because we’ve talked about it many times. If we play well against anyone in the league, we have a chance to win. If we don’t play well, we’ll lose, and that’s just the way it is.”
After the Celtics crushed the Magic by 30 points on Wednesday without Thomas, who is out with a pulled groin, there were whispers that maybe the team flows more freely without him. Thomas, who is also expected to miss Sunday’s game against the Thunder, scoffed at this notion before Friday’s game.
And as Toronto froze the Celtics’ passing lanes and extended its defense, it was obvious that Boston could have used a slashing, probing point guard, particularly after it reached the penalty with under eight minutes left in the game.
“You’ve got to drive the ball when you’re being pressured like that at 25 feet away and they’re in the passing lanes and everything else,” Stevens said.
Kyle Lowry had 34 points to lead the Raptors. Horford paced the Celtics with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. The Celtics tied a franchise record by making 17 of 42 3-pointers. But they made just 34.1 percent of their 2-point field goal attempts and shot 68.2 percent from the free throw line.
The Celtics led, 62-52, midway through the third quarter, when they began to unravel. It all started when Lowry was fouled by Kelly Olynyk as he drilled a deep 3-pointer beyond the right arc, giving him his second 4-point play in as many nights.
A 3-pointer from the right corner by Patrick Patterson stretched the Raptors’ 11-0 run and gave Toronto its first lead since the first quarter, 63-62. And with 1:13 left Lowry capped the dominant 21-3 surge by hitting another 3 from the left arc.
In 4:16, the Raptors had turned a 10-point hole into an 8-point lead. The Celtics made just 5 of 18 field goal attempts in the third quarter.
“We made a run early and they stayed with it,” Horford said of the Raptors. “They didn’t rattle; they just kept playing their way and eventually they kind of got over us.”
The Celtics trailed by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter before clawing back. With 2:55 left, Bradley hit a 3-pointer from the right arc to pull Boston within 91-87.
The Celtics still trailed by 4 with under a minute left when Crowder spotted up for a 3-pointer on a fast break, but the ball rimmed out. At the other end, Lowry was fouled on a 3-point attempt, ending Boston’s hopes.
The Celtics attempted 13 3-pointers in the final period even though the Raptors committed their fourth foul with 7:29 left. But Thomas is generally the player who probes and attacks and gets to the foul line in these moments.
This season he has attempted 185 free throws while his next closest teammate has taken just 42, so perhaps it was unfamiliar territory for Boston.
“We definitely get itchy for a shot,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We missed some open shots that could have got us back in it, but that’s what hurt us because they were quick shots. We just rushed them. We stopped getting into the lane. We were in the bonus, and we stopped trying to get to the line.”