North of the border, C's play down

Mark L. Baer/US Presswire

Paul Pierce's reaction just about sums up the night for the Celtics.It's been nearly a month since the Boston Celtics turned in a stinker against an inferior opponent. Maybe that's why coach Doc Rivers didn't mind falling on the sword for Friday's head-shaking 84-79 loss to the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Center.

The Celtics established early control, built a double-digit lead with help from a second-unit lineup that featured emergency depth guys like Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, and Ryan Hollins, and seemed poised for a laugher. Instead, the starters fumbled away the lead, a chance to rest and the game, all while a feverish late rally came up short against the Raptors (providing the real stomach punch for the evening).

"By sitting [the starters] that long and not playing a lot in first half, I may have lost their rhythm, I don’t know," shrugged an unconvincing Rivers. "I'll go with that. You like that one? We'll go with that."

Rivers can blame his mildly altered substitution pattern -- it wasn't that far from the norm -- but Boston's starters simply didn't have it on Friday. Playing a non-playoff team for the first time this month to kick off the only back-to-back-to-back of the season, the Celtics clearly were not as engaged as they've been lately. In fact, not since a 120-95 thrashing in Sacramento on March 16 has Boston just flat-out played down to the level of its opponent.

Consider this: The Raptors were without Andrea Bargnani (shut down for the season with calf ailment) and Jose Calderon (swollen right eye); started two guys on 10-day contracts out of the D-League (Alan Anderson and Ben Uzoh); shot a mere 18.2 percent in the first quarter (4-for-22); and were generally willing to allow Boston to steamroll them if so desired.

The Celtics didn't.

Pierce hit 1 of 8 shots in the middle frames and the Celtics got a bit careless with the ball at times (even if they turned it over only 10 times for 13 points overall). The Raptors controlled the glass and got some big second-chance points to help rally ahead. Rivers lamented how his team "activated" the hosts in the third quarter, allowing Toronto to get some momentum. By the time Boston decided to truly try, its deficit was a bit too much to overcome.

The Celtics initially tried to lazily shoot their way back into the game with 3-pointers, missing three in a row to start the fourth quarter before finally putting a renewed emphasis on attacking the basket. Boston was still down 10 with three minutes to go before it finally charged, rallying within a single point twice in the final minute. Each time, DeMar DeRozan hit a pair of clutch free throws. Pierce's 3-point attempt to tie the game was well off the mark (Pierce hit three of Boston's four trifectas, but the team shot 21.1 percent overall beyond the arc).

To put it simpler: The Celtics missed 50 (fifty!) shots on the night; maybe the only surprise is they even had a chance to win the game.

If there's a silver lining for Boston, it's this: The playoff picture took a noticeable step toward coming into focus with Friday's action. Philadelphia lost in New Jersey, allowing the Celtics to maintain a three-game cushion over both the 76ers and Knicks with seven games to go -- which is to say the Atlantic Division title is the Celtics so long as they don't fall on their face). Meanwhile, Indiana stomped Cleveland, giving the Pacers a three-game cushion over the Celtics and moving them a little closer to securing the No. 3 seed.

That means the Celtics might be able to start honing in on the 4-5 matchup a bit more. The two most likely opponents -- Atlanta and Orlando -- just happened to clash Friday, with the Hawks throttling the Magic. Atlanta remains Boston's projected playoff opponent and the only question now might be who will own home-court advantage. The Hawks have a one-game lead in the overall standings, but a head-to-head matchup still looms later this month, and Boston owns the tiebreaker.

With record in mind, the Celtics likely have to push hard Saturday night in New Jersey (or harder than they might have been inclined if they had won their third straight). The rest of the trip just got a little harder on the starters, who might not be able to catch as much rest as Rivers had previously planned.

That might have been the most frustrating aspect of Friday's loss for Rivers. Not only did the Celtics have to lean heavily on the starters in the second half just to rally back, that charge came up short and Boston could have just given the likes of Garnett and Pierce the night off and probably endured the same result.

Heck, the second unit played so well, maybe the Celtics would have actually won Friday's matchup with a junior varsity lineup.