The Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors met for the second time this season, with a .500 record on the line in both directions. The Celtics, returning home after a difficult 3-5 Western Conference road trip sought to avoid dropping to 12-12 on the year, while the Raptors (winners of five-of-six) attempted to complete their climb out of ignominy and advance to 13-13. Compared to the first contest, it was a reversal of fortune of sorts, but the result remained the same — the Celtics held off the Raptors once again, scoring a handy double-digit win, 120-106.
In a surprise twist on the 2021 Celtics formula, it was the role players who powered the team ahead tonight. It was not Jayson Tatum (17 points, nine assists) or Jaylen Brown (12 points, 3-of-12 shooting) who paced the Celtics’ scoring, but rather Semi Ojeleye (career-high 24 points, 8-of-12 shooting) and Payton Pritchard (20, 6-of-10) who brought much of the scoring punch. As he always does, Kyle Lowry (24 points) led the way for Toronto, supplemented by a strong outing by Pascal Siakam (23). But, on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors didn’t quite have the juice to handle the Celtics tonight.
The Celtics opened the night in the fast lane, racking up a quick 15-2 lead over Toronto in the early minutes of the evening. Semi Ojeyele, drawing a rare appearance in the starting lineup, served as the catalyst. He connected on a pair of three-pointers en route to eight early points, and alongside Daniel Theis, drove the Celtics ahead despite a quiet start from Tatum, Brown and Walker.
Tonight’s Raptors have been a more formidable foe of late than their early season struggles might suggest, however. They entered tonight’s matchup in the midst of a franchise record five straight games scoring at least 120 points, and their offense continued to surge in early going tonight. Despite a significant disparity from three-point range (6-of-11 for Boston, 0-of-3 for Toronto), the Raptors kept the opening frame close by shooting 55% from the field and connecting on all seven of their free throw attempts. Boston’s lead sat at five entering the second quarter, 34-29.
In the two teams’ previous meeting — a 126-114 Boston victory in early January— the Raptors won the first quarter, but subsequently suffered a brutal 38-14 shelling at the hands of the Celtics in the second. This time around, the Celtics didn’t have it quite so easy. With Boston’s threes continuing to fall, the Raptors countered by shooting even better inside the arc and continuing to find their way to the free throw line. Boston inched ahead, though, and entered the half with a 66-56 lead.
The story of the first half was not any of Boston’s or Toronto’s stars, but rather, the role player duo of Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard. The pair were engulfed in flames from behind the arc for much of the night, connecting on a combined nine of their first 13 three-point attempts (three-quarters of Boston’s total from deep). At the half, Ojeleye led all scorers with 19 points, while Pritchard came in third with 14.
Boston’s offensive rhythm carried over into the third quarter. The threes continued to fall from seemingly everywhere, with Kemba Walker (5-of-7 for the night), Ojeleye (6-8) and Pritchard (6-8) staying red hot. With so many other players finding buckets, Tatum took a back seat and enjoyed a more relaxed role as a creator rather than a primary scorer. He tallied up nine assists in 2.5 quarters, and the Celtics’ lead extended as high as 15.
The quarter ended sloppily, to say the least. As their shooters finally went cold, the Celtics went nearly five minutes without a made bucket, and the Raptors didn’t fare much better, missing a cavalcade of open attempts at the rim. The ugly pace favored Toronto, and the Raptors were able to recoup some of the deficit before Grant Williams finally found the Celtics a bucket with less than a minute to play. A last-second Celtics heave fell short, and they entered the final quarter leading by eight, 88-80.
Thankfully, the sloppy performance appeared to be just a blip, as the Celtics regained their composure when play resumed in the fourth quarter. A pair of threes from Pritchard and Javonte Green helped edge the lead back into double digits. The lead didn’t last long, however. Toronto’s aggressive attack in the paint (combined with some truly awful rim protection by the Celtics) kept them alive, and the Boston lead dwindled all the way down to five as the fourth quarter approached its midpoint.
Finally, as the clocked ticked down under the five minute mark, the Celtics managed to scrap together some important stops. Brown and Theis recorded crucial blocks on Toronto layup attempts, and Walker’s fifth triple of the evening once again put the Celtics ahead by 10. With that, the air appeared to be sucked out of Toronto’s sails. Boston sat their starters and Tacko Fall checked in as the clock ticked, and that was all she wrote.
Next up, the Celtics face a back-to-back of their own, returning to play tomorrow night to face off with the Detroit Pistons at 8 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.