The repercussions were obvious for the Celtics 3 minutes, 32 seconds into the third quarter and trailing by 18 points to the Toronto Raptors, who were missing All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan.
If the Celtics were to continue to get drubbed without any resistance, it would be by far the worst and most damaging loss of the season and the players should bottle up any talk or ideas of being the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
For the first 28 minutes of Wednesday’s game, Toronto mentally owned the Celtics. The Raptors, coming off a rugged overtime win Tuesday against New Orleans, knocked around the rested Celtics and raced to an 18-point lead after Kyle Lowry’s 3-pointer with 8:28 left in the third.
Toronto played not only like the more desperate team, the Raptors played as if they would be truly embarrassed to lose to the Celtics. Boston was 4-10 against Toronto under Brad Stevens, so this hasn’t exactly been a rivalry. Champions and sparring partners aren’t rivals, and that’s what this matchup felt like until the Celtics resurrected their desire and passion.
They cut the 18-point deficit to 8 by the end of the third, and then finally caught the Raptors behind the heroics of Isaiah Thomas, and the grit of Marcus Smart and rookie Jaylen Brown. The 109-104 win in front of a sellout crowd at TD Garden legitimized the Celtics as an Eastern Conference contender, because a loss would have meant they spent the last 10 weeks of the season as pretenders.
“I thought it was going to be close or 30 [get blown out], that’s what I was thinking,” Stevens said about the 18-point deficit. “Because we needed to be at a different level and, again, our bench was a big reason why we got back in it. We didn’t play — I didn’t think we played — very well for the first 2½ quarters. I thought they had a lot to do with that.”
There was doubt in Stevens, and at halftime he screamed at his team. Why in the world were the weary Raptors playing with more energy? The Celtics had targeted this game for weeks, especially after Toronto began tumbling a few weeks ago and the possibility became real of getting the No. 2 seed by Sunday so Stevens could become the Eastern Conference coach in the Feb. 19 All-Star Game.
And yet they were lucky to trail by 9 at halftime after a poor defensive half, one that allowed former Celtic Jared Sullinger to score 11 points in 11 first-half minutes.
“Honestly, Brad killed us at halftime,” Thomas said. “He yelled at us, probably the most mad I’ve seen him. And Gerald [Green] doesn’t shut up, so he was also talking and saying some words we needed to hear. Even though we still didn’t come out like we wanted to in the third quarter with that in the back of our heads, I think that changed the game for us.
“I think we played harder than them, we got the 50-50 balls, and I think that was the deciding factor.”
It shouldn’t take expletives from Stevens and chiding from Green to get this team going, but it did.
Green has become a veteran presence, one who constantly encourages his teammates. On the court, the season hasn’t gone as well as he had planned. He’s shooting 36.9 percent from the field and averaging 5 points per game. But what has kept him around is his influence in the locker room.
“I just had to let guys know, I thought that we were better than that,” Green said of the first-half performance. “We’re better than how we came out. Those guys played tremendous in the second half.”
Green’s impact on the locker room is bigger than expected. Ate age 31, he is the oldest member of the team, and all of his teammates remember his dunk contest exploits, as well as how he played himself out of the league and was relegated to competing in Russia and China.
He played six minutes Wednesday night and scored 2 points, but Green contributed greatly to the Celtics’ biggest win of the season, sensing his teammates were rather overconfident heading into the matchup.
“I’ve played a lot of basketball, here and overseas, and I think the guys respect my opinion a lot,” Green said. “I thought we were just too loose. And it’s OK to be loose, but I thought we were a little bit too loose. I had a feeling it was going to be like that. I kind of just got really mad and then Coach said the exact same thing. I said, ‘Come on, man. What the hell, man?’ I was hot because this was a very important game.”
Green and Stevens combined to save the Celtics from themselves. A loss would have been demoralizing, especially with Toronto without an All-Star and mired in foul trouble. The Celtics needed this game more than Toronto did for their own confidence and security.
Over the past few weeks, Boston has knocked off Washington, Houston, and then Milwaukee on the second night of back-to-back sets, but those victories paled in comparison to Wednesday.
Now the Celtics are legitimate contenders for that No. 2 seed and perhaps even the top seed if they had another piece by the trade deadline (stay tuned). But winning Wednesday allowed them to overcome a major psychological hurdle, but that likely wouldn’t have been possible if not for Stevens and Green screaming some life into the team.