Maybe they were looking ahead to Monday night in Atlanta. Maybe they thought they didn’t need any toughness, mentally or physically, to beat a Raptors team that’s among the NBA’s worst. Maybe they decided to mail this one in when they discovered that point guard Rajon Rondo had a tweaked hamstring and couldn’t go.
Or maybe the Celtics, who lost a 102-101 shocker at the buzzer to a Raptors team that’s now 5-9 this season, just got outplayed. You’d have to be the world’s best psychic to have seen that coming.
The Celtics led by as much as 13, going up 22-9 on a leaping Nate Robinson 3-pointer midway through the first quarter. They also trailed by 12 late, as a three-pointer from Leandro Barbosa with nine minutes left drove a dagger through their hearts at 93-81. But in the end, both teams made just enough mistakes to make it a game in the end. The Celtics can make all the excuses they want — the Rondo injury, the officiating, the lucky bounces — but they lost that game, fair and square.
“We didn’t play great, obviously, but we still had a chance to win the game and should have won the game,” coach Doc Rivers said. “But we put ourselves in the position to lose the game, and we did. A couple of questionable calls down the stretch hurt us, but I always tell our guys that if you put yourself in that position, then that stuff can happen.”
The Celtics had one chance to win the game with 2.7 seconds left. Paul Pierce had a shot at a game-winner on the wing from 20 feet out; instead he dribbled in, threw himself into two defenders, and lofted one up from 16 feet instead. It bounced out, and the C’s lost.
“I don’t mind that,” Rivers said of the shot. “It’s a good shot for us. Paul likes going right and stepping away. I don’t think we could have gotten a better shot in that timeframe.”
They had another chance to win it with 18 seconds left — Sonny Weems had just taken the ball to the hole for a quick two with the Raptors down three, and Ray Allen had the lead and the ball for the final possession. If he just holds the ball, gets fouled and hits two shots, the C’s are in the driver’s seat; instead he dribbles around, turns it over and the Raptors catch a huge break.
“I thought Ray got fouled,” Rivers said. “I thought it was clear. But listen, you know they’re going to swipe, and you know they’re going to go after the ball, so you’ve got to protect the ball. We didn’t execute very well. We had a foul to give on the play that they scored quick — we wanted to use it, and we didn’t use it. And then we turned the ball over.”
But really, this was a game that the Celtics had chances to win all day long. You can over-analyze the final seconds all you want, but the C’s lost because for 48 minutes, their effort was spotty and their defense was porous. The Raptors were looking for a big statement win on their home floor, and they were there to capitalize on the C’s and their lapses.
“We’ve just got to get better defensively,” Rivers said. “We’ve proved that we can do it in spurts, but we’ve just got to have a better sense of urgency. You know, sometimes your team just gets bored with the season. That happens with a veteran team, and that could happen now.”
This is no time for boredom. The Celtics have lost back-to-back games against very beatable opponents, and they’ve now slipped to second place in the Eastern Conference standings, one game behind Orlando.
Enough flipping switches. It doesn’t work in a single game, and it doesn’t work in a season, either. The Celtics need to get their focus back. If losing to the Raptors on the final possession doesn’t wake them up, then what will?