This was destined to feel a little strange. The Celtics took the court for the first time since the Boston Marathon bombings not at TD Garden, but in Toronto, closing out the regular season with their 81st game in a matchup that meant nothing, against an opponent already greedily counting its draft lottery ping-pong balls.
Somehow, though, it felt even stranger than anticipated. Compared to the emotional scene of fans singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” prior to the Bruins game, the national anthem before tip-off at the Air Canada Centre sounded clipped and hurried. The Raptors’ gesture to play “Sweet Caroline” while introducing the Celtics was sweet. As the Boston players jogged around obliviously, however, it suddenly occurred that few of those players have probably ever been to a Red Sox game, and thus would have missed the significance of the song.
It was little surprise when the Celtics promptly went out and got dusted by the Raptors 114-90 in a game that was not nearly that close. Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry rested, while Paul Pierce sat out the entire second half. DeMar DeRozan, who was 2-for-6 from the field at halftime, poured in 24 points by the time the game was done. Fab Melo even played, which says it all.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers tried to stir some life, calling a timeout early in the third quarter after the Raptors opened the second half on a 9-2 run, but what was he supposed to say? That this is a life-or-death scenario, when Monday’s events reminded us all of the truth? That they should win this one for the Boston fans, sitting on their couches more than 500 miles away?
For the Celtics, this regular season has seemed longer, not a game shorter, than a normal one. It seems like years ago that Rajon Rondo was running the point or Jared Sullinger was energizing the team with his hustle in the post. A finale in Canada after an extremely rare canceled game fit in perfectly with an unusual year. Whatever the exchange rate is for surrealism, the Celtics apparently made the change at customs.
The Celtics will rebound from this. Once Garnett is back on the court and Pierce has a goal to play for, they will transform that lethargic squad that lost Wednesday in Toronto into a gritty unit that undoubtedly has the Knicks worried. There is a scheduled off day Thursday, followed by practice in New York on Friday, before Game 1 tips off.
When the ball goes up Saturday at Madison Square Garden, the Celtics will be ready. Their track record makes that a safe bet. By then, they will be steeled for the playoffs and ready to play for Boston, which needs a lift after a tough few days. Perhaps the Celtics, like the rest of us, just needed a chance to regroup. After two days in a daze, getting back to reality can be strange.