The entire Celtics team remained for the Toronto game as the trade deadline sun set to calls for and against the team’s stagnancy. Common ground both could agree on, with 23 games remaining, was that this one would be massive for Boston with leads of two and four games over Washington and Toronto respectively.
Kyle Lowry and Avery Bradley sat, the latter expected to return Sunday after 17 straight absences to recover from his achilles sprain. Demar DeRozan returned after missing the last matchup; Jaylen Brown back in uniform for Boston.
Whether Boston standing pat works long term is yet to be seen, but for one night it looked like an unadulterated disaster. The Raptors burst out of halftime behind the two-way efforts of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, erasing a 17-point lead with a burst of scoring from DeRozan. They sealed the door on Boston’s fourth quarter offense and won commandingly, 107-97.
DeRozan and Brown faced off early; Brown got beat with an up-fake to give Toronto the first lead of the game. The Raps turned to him to drive the offense in full while Brown got stuck with the difficult defensive assignment. In the first they locked in on each other often and sparked a fun battle.
Toronto, in an attempt to grab the Atlantic from the Celts, made the two moves that Boston didn’t this past week. Both acquisitions wore the white uniform for the first time tonight. Ibaka missed his first attempt. Minutes later he raised both hands in the air as the crowd exploded in response to his block on Isaiah Thomas along the baseline after initially getting beat.
It was a quick start for the Raps then the offense began to stall to disastrous effect. The Celtics took over; Thomas, Brown and Al Horford all poured in five first quarter points behind their excellent ball movement after turnovers.
Thomas redeemed himself with a quick drive through Toronto’s front line and a string of well-timed blocks by Brown, then Amir Johnson, on DeRozan around the net sent the Celts into a frenzy of dominance.
Jae Crowder hit a wing three to push Boston ahead, Thomas got going with a deep three make, and; after two Toronto buckets, Crowder used his body to hang on Damarre Carroll and score through him at the rim. Johnson stuffed DeRozan again on a straight drive to the rim, and Horford pushed an outlet to Brown who scored through a foul on a run to the rim.
The Brown vs. DeRozan battle continued late into the first. They both turned each other over in succession after DeRozan faced up Brown for a floater and Brown dribbled around the defense with help from a screen to get an easy score at the rim.
Brown had stopped DeRozan on two straight possessions as the Celts assumed a double-digit lead. Marcus Smart entered with an excellent shift off Carroll into the lane to get a stop. Toronto was fading and found a big boost in Patrick Patterson and Lucas Nogueira; who entered with big blocks, cuts and screens to help the Raps stay within striking distance.
Up 29-18 into the second, the Celts continued to contend with the raging, aggressive scoring of DeRozan and some rough calls. Another new Raptor, and once a Celts target; P.J. Tucker entered and hit on his first attempt from mid range. Momentum was building, until Ibaka lost control.
He fumbled the ball off an offensive rebound and it ended up in the hands of James Young, who turned around and dribbled through two defenders ahead of everybody and threw down a monster slam at the rim. Ibaka plowed through Young for two on the next possession, then got caught diving in front of Smart on an easy transition bucket later for Toronto and the basket was called off on his foul.
The Celtics led 36-27, and next play the Raptors got caught fouling Thomas through a Johnson screen; a recurring image this season. I.T. drilled the three and the free throw and were up by 16.
The Raptors looked cooked, Boston even started getting active on the offensive boards. That was when things got chippy.
Jonas Valanciunas put his foot down and got active around the rim, hitting two shots in succession and charged two separate 4-0 runs. Horford broke up the success with a quick make and then DeRozan turned the ball over. Thomas ran ahead of everybody in transition, and Carroll extended his arm and shoved Thomas face first into the court.
Carroll only got a flagrant one on an extremely dangerous play, with Thomas and Crowder getting technicals for their retaliation. The Celts made something of it though, going on a 7-0 run.
The gap would quickly narrow into the third with another DeRozan floater and dip to Valanciunas on a tough cut to the rim. The Celts failed to convert for over two minutes while Ibaka extended Toronto’s run to 13-1 underneath on DeRozan’s third assist.
Things looked dire, then Thomas happened again.
He beat the initial defender above the arc, dipped low past Ibaka, hesitated in front of Valanciunas and then elevated while getting hit to make an off-balance layup and the free throw. Boston had space again at 59-51.
No room would be enough to negate DeRozan; though, even without Lowry. He drilled a three in the corner on a quick feed from Cory Joseph; who then forced a turnover on Horford, hit a shot underneath on a fake and then dumped underneath again to Ibaka who pulled the Raptors to the closest they’d been since they led: 59-58.
Thomas did the best he could to maintain a waning lead. Another layup contorting around Toronto’s bigs pushed Boston up 63-60. Propelled by none other than new additions Ibaka and Tucker that the Celts passed on, the Raptors soon shot ahead. DeRozan poured in another layup then Patterson fed Ibaka from the post for a three. The run kept rolling, Toronto scoring 50 points in about 11 minutes, and they had their best lead at 68-63.
Boston was held scoreless for over two minutes yet Brad Stevens kept faith in the bench unit that had to grit its teeth for points. Between a Crowder three and insanely difficult layup by Terry Rozier, contorting his body around Ibaka, they got back up 71-70 with little time to enjoy it thanks to DeRozan scoring faster than anybody can think. He set up a crowd-roaring three for Patterson and hit another high-leaping mid-range jumper on a face-up. Boston kept pace with a pair of Kelly Olynyk free throws and a sideways jumper by Smart as Thomas continued to sit.
The faith paid off, the C’s forced four straight misses through the final 2:30 and Smart’s playmaking set up a 77-74 lead despite all the challenges they faced in the quarter. It also gave Thomas a hefty rest going into the final frame.
One of the big differences in the game to this point was the three ball. The Celts were shooting at a high percentage from the jump, kept putting them up in volume and continued to into the fourth. In the early minutes Brown scored from the corner, shaking Tucker’s lockdown defense on him from the third. Thomas hit a spot-up three soon after, the Celts put up five threes (making two) in five minutes, while DeRozan had to hit the bench for a moment after logging 30 minutes. Boston held a thin 85-80 lead.
The floodgates opened on an ill-advised pass by Rozier, tipped by Joseph, that bounced off about five bodies before going to Tucker for a steal. Joseph hit a layup around a screen, and it was a one possession game all over again. Thomas finally reached 20 with five minutes to go. He would never score again.
Seconds later DeRozan was spinning around Smart and Young on the baseline to tie the game on a reverse layup.
Back-and-forth they went. Crowder banked in a wing three. Ibaka caught another feed from DeRozan. A few possessions later, Tucker swung the ball out to Carroll for a three that put Toronto back up 93-91. The crowd was ecstatic after another stop and DeRozan nailed a deep two behind a screen for a commanding 95-91 lead.
The battle intensified with under two minutes to go. DeRozan rushed up the court and hit another jumper on a high release after Smart hit a free throw. Crowder drilled a deep two before the Celts got the stop they needed, yet Tucker was in position for his third offensive rebound.
His play to save the possession set up another shot from DeRozan that sliced through the rim without a hint of net. Smart chucked a three for a miss and it landed in the hands of nobody but Tucker, his ninth board.
A Smart three-point play provided some late life, though free throws shut it down. The Raptors successfully erased a 17 point deficit and won 107-97. They once again dominated the season series over Boston and now sit just three games behind the Celts.