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Boston Celtics clinch second seed in Eastern Conference with narrow 97-93 win over Toronto Raptors

The Celtics locked themselves in as the Eastern Conference’s second seed with a tight win over the Raptors

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are making some strategic decisions during the last week of the regular season. After sitting Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III in Tuesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart found their way to the bench for Wednesday’s battle with the potential playoff opponent Toronto Raptors. Though the game was close throughout, the shorthanded Celtics made plays when the needed to, walking away with a 97-93 win and locking themselves in as the second seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

The guard rotation ruled the night for the Celtics this evening. Jaylen Brown, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon took on the lion’s share of the offensive burden, scoring 71 combined points while only one other Celtic (Mike Muscala, 12) scoring in the double digits. For the Raptors, Pascal Siakam was the standout, leading the team with 28 points and tacking on 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.

Absent their leading man and top playmaker, the Celtics’ offense was bothered by Toronto’s length and defensive playmaking early in the first quarter. The Raptors jumped out to a modest early lead, while holding Boston to just a single point in nearly four minutes of game time. Three-point shooting proved to be the equalizer: the Celtics connected on four threes in the opening quarter — two from fill-in starter Mike Muscala — while Toronto hit just two, and they took a three-point lead entering the second, 31-28.

A turbocharged effort from White led the way as the second quarter began. He was the first Celtic to hit double figures for the evening, including a lightning-fast coast-to-coast layup that caught the heart of the Toronto defense flat-footed. Brogdon was next in line, connecting on a three-pointer to push his scoring total to 10, and hitting a second one midway through the quarter to push the Boston lead to the same. The duo carried the offensive load, while the clamped down defensively on the Raptors’ dysfunctional half-court attack, and the Celtics carried a 56-44 lead into the halftime break.

Toronto rediscovered a bit of a rhythm as the second half began. They snapped a lengthy cold streak from three — they didn’t make a single three-pointer in the second quarter — early in the third as part of an 11-5 run that trimmed the Boston lead back down into single digits. They continued to whittle away as the minutes ticked down, with a late-quarter 12-2 run that pulled them within two points. A pair of Brogdon buckets afforded the Celtics a small amount of wiggle room, and they entered the final quarter with a seven-point lead, 79-72.

Of note: White suffered a brief injury scare midway through the quarter, coming up limping after rolling his ankle on a drive to the basket. He made two free throws and, after the ensuing Boston timeout, remained in the game, even hitting the floor after a bump on a Toronto offensive foul. White appeared to suffer no ill effects, but his status likely bears watching as the Celtics take a cautious approach to the remainder of the regular season.

Scoring slowed to a snail’s pace as play resumed in the fourth. The two teams combined for just seven points across the first five minutes of the quarter. Toronto was the team to thaw the ice, finding the bottom of the net a couple times to put together an inconspicuous 10-3 run and tie the game on a three-pointer from Precious Achiuwa with just over six minutes to play in regulation.

As with the previous Toronto runs, the Celtics responded. Brown and Brogdon connected on a pair of timely buckets, along with a Brogdon dime to Muscala, inching the Celtics back to a five point lead. The lead held steady in the two possession range for the next couple minutes, as the clock ticked under two minutes to play. With just under a minute remaining, Brown rampaged to the rim for a layup, which was contacted by Achiuwa and ruled a goaltend by the officials. A Nick Nurse challenge was unsuccessful, and the Celtics lead went to 95-88 with a minute to play.

The final minute was, put frankly, chaos. Achiuwa scored a two-pointer off an offensive rebound, and then slammed home a dunk on the ensuing possession, drawing the foul and hitting a free throw to complete the three-point play and trim the Boston lead to just two points in the blink of an eye. After a timeout from Joe Mazzulla, Brogdon drew the intentional foul from Toronto and connected on both freebies, giving the Celtics a four-point lead and sealing the victory.

Next up, the Celtics will do it all over again. They’ll host the Raptors at TD Garden for the second game in a row, this Friday at 7:30 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston in the penultimate game of their regular season.

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