This one was unforgivable. At some point during this four-game road trip, the Celtics were expected to lose a game, and that would have been completely understandable. Human beings typically cannot work up the requisite energy to win four times in five nights in the NBA without a letdown.
This one was not understandable, though. The first game should be the warm-up, the one where the players get their legs under them and beat an overmatched opponent convincingly enough that the veterans can spend the fourth quarter on the bench, laughing about what type of plans they have for their next stop in sunny Newark, N.J. Nobody bothered to tell that to the Toronto Raptors, who outdid the Celtics in nearly every facet of the game to hand Boston an 84-79 loss.
There was no silver lining in the Celtics coming back to pull within one point in the fourth quarter, either. If anything, that only gave the Celtics a belief that they could gut this one out, causing them to expend extra energy that may have been better saved for the next two nights.
"To me, we didn't have it, honestly," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "You could see it. I thought I contributed to that by resting them in the first half."
Rivers broke his normal substitution pattern by benching most of his starters at the beginning of the second quarter, but the negative payback did not come until after halftime. The Raptors burst out of intermission with a 19-4 run that essentially decided the outcome.
Paul Pierce scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Celtics (34-25), who fell a game behind the Atlanta Hawks for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Raptors (21-39) snapped a four-game losing streak and assured they will finish no worse than third-to-last in the Eastern Conference standings. So there was that.
For all the punchlines these Raptors can inspire — and they can inspire a lot, especially with point guard Jose Calderon and forward Andrea Bargnani out with injuries — this is a team that can be trouble if a good team gives it hope. The Raptors earned their 10th victory this season over a team .500 or better, almost as many as current playoff teams Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York and three more than playoff-contending Milwaukee. The scalps of the Rockets, Grizzlies and Nuggets already were displayed at the Air Canada Centre. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)
The Raptors were not a team the Celtics could afford to let hang around. Push out to a wide lead at halftime, and the Raptors probably fold. Let them work a 13-point lead down to six points, as the Celtics did in the second quarter, and there was bound to be trouble.
The Celtics set the tone, Rivers said, and he did not mean that in a good way.
"I just thought the way we set the tone to start the third quarter changed the game," Rivers said. "I told our guys, you can never activate a team and I thought we did that.
"Listen, they haven't won a lot of games. Once they felt they had a shot to win, they made great shots and made plays, but I thought we put ourselves in that position."
The Celtics could not reasonably have been expected to go undefeated on this difficult road stretch, but they used up their mulligan on the first night. There is no cushion now, just as there will be little time left for rest.