TORONTO — The Celtics’ locker room was nearly silent following the team’s discouraging 114-106 loss to the Raptors on Tuesday night. Players sat at their stalls and scrolled through their phones, and no one was smiling.
As forward Jae Crowder soaked his feet in an ice bucket, Terry Rozier sat about five feet away and shook his head, telling Crowder that for some reason, the Raptors always seem to come back against Boston, no matter the situation.
It happened at TD Garden last month, when Toronto overcame a 12-point second-half deficit to win by 7 points. And it happened again on Tuesday, a night the shorthanded Celtics had seemed to do so much right for such an important stretch, this time blitzing to a 16-point third-quarter lead.
Boston is at the point where there are no moral victories, especially not here and now. This was another game against an elite team that slipped from their grasp.
Before tipoff, coach Brad Stevens said that if the Celtics do not progress from now until April, “we’re in trouble.” After the loss, he said he had actually seen encouraging signs of progress.
“But at the end of the day,” he said, “[the Raptors] had their way in the last six minutes in each of the last two quarters.”
The season is nearly at its midway point, and although it is too early to be overly concerned with positioning, this game did represent an opportunity. A few weeks ago the Celtics were peering up at the division-leading Raptors through a five-game deficit. But they had sliced through it recently, winning 10 of 12 games.
With a win, Boston would have been tied with Toronto for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference. It would not have meant anything when set against the grander backdrop, but it would have felt like a milepost.
There was a sense of opportunity before the game, as Stevens even fielded questions about what it would be like to coach the All-Star team if his team secured second place before then. But this one ended just like the others have when Boston has faced powerful opponents. It ended with a loss.
It ended with DeMar DeRozan erupting for 41 points, with Jonas Valanciunas gobbling up just about every rebound (23, to be exact), and with the usually poised Celtics looking almost panicked as they frittered away a lead in the final five minutes.
“We all were maybe a little too anxious to make those plays, instead of slowing down a little bit and playing through it,” forward Al Horford said. “The atmosphere was a little hectic.”
The Celtics led, 102-95, with 5:05 left, and then they were blindsided and outscored 19-4 when the stakes were at their highest. Boston has now played eight games against teams with winning percentages currently above .600, and it has lost all of them.
Of course, winning on the road against a powerful team like Toronto is hard enough on its own, but the Celtics had to do it without their starting shooting guard and All-NBA defender, Avery Bradley, who missed his second consecutive game because of a strained Achilles tendon.
“He helps us,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said. “But that’s not the reason why we lost.”
Thomas was a dynamic force during the Celtics’ recent surge. On Tuesday he had 27 points and 7 assists, but afterward he was frustrated by his team’s execution as Toronto threw waves of defenders at him.
“We just didn’t make plays out of that,” he said. “I gave the ball up a little bit. I tried to attack it as well, and we didn’t make shots. During that fourth quarter, we didn’t get stops and we didn’t make shots on the offensive end.”
The Celtics led by 16 points midway through the third quarter and still held the 7-point lead with 5:05 left, but that is when they unraveled.
DeRozan hit back to-back baskets, including a pull-up 16-footer to bring his team within 102-101. With 2:41 left, Kyle Lowry drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key as he was fouled by Marcus Smart, although he missed the ensuing free throw.
With the Raptors leading, 106-104, DeRozan drilled a difficult 16-foot fadeaway jumper. At the other end, Thomas probed and fired up a layup, but it was blocked by Valanciunas.
“They upped the pressure a little bit,” Horford said, “and we really didn’t handle it as well as we could have.”
DeRozan then hit yet another pull-up jumper, this one a 12-footer from the baseline, to give Toronto a 110-104 lead. Valanciunas finished Boston off by blocking a Gerald Green jumper and converting a tip-in at the other end.
“They scored at will,” Thomas said, “for probably the last six minutes.”