C's Credit Toronto as it Pulls 2 Games Ahead

TORONTO – You’ve gotta give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors, at least for another few days, are the kings of the Atlantic Division.

Boston had a chance to snag that title Tuesday night in Toronto. A win would have evened the two teams’ records, while the Celtics would have owned the tie-breaker in the standings. Instead, Toronto pulled out a 114-106 victory and it now owns a two-game lead over the Celtics in the division and for the second seed in the East.

"First of all, I think a lot of credit goes to them," Brad Stevens said shortly after the loss. "They made a lot of tough shots. They made a lot of tough plays."

Isaiah Thomas watched Toronto do what needed to be done to grab a win during a matchup that multiple Celtics termed as a "big game." Thomas called the loss "disappointing.”

What leaves the taste in Boston’s collective mouth especially sour is the fact that the C’s controlled the majority of the contest. They led throughout the second, third and fourth quarters and owned a 16-point lead during the second half before letting a critical win slip away.

“We had a chance to win this game and we didn’t,” Thomas added, “so that’s probably the toughest thing about it.”

The presence of DeMar DeRozan is the key reason why Boston didn’t grab that win it so desperately wanted.

Toronto’s two-time All-Star guard was outstanding during the second half, scoring 31 points during the final two stanzas alone. He recorded 12 points during the final quarter on 5-of-6 shooting.

Once he got started, it was impossible for Boston to turn him off.

As Stevens said after the defeat, “DeRozan made some shots that are very, very difficult shots.”

One of those shots was made over Thomas, which drew the ire of Celtics fans and provoked the media to ask Stevens about the matchup after the game. The coach retorted by explaining that Thomas is much better in one-on-one situations than many perceive, and that the 5-foot-9 guard actually challenged DeRozan’s shots as well as anyone on this night. Thomas forced one miss and allowed one make during crunch time, but even DeRozan’s misfire led to points for Toronto.

“[DeRozan] drew so much attention on some of his misses that they ended up tipping it in,” Stevens explained.

Jonas Valanciunas was the guy who was cleaning up DeRozan’s misses, and every other miss for that matter. The 7-footer grabbed 10 rebounds during the fourth quarter alone, including seven at the offensive end. Two of those offensive boards led to four of Toronto’s final 10 points of the night. He tallied 23 total rebounds in the game.

“I think that rebounding was a huge factor, and Valanciunas’ presence in the paint at the end of the game was a huge factor,” Stevens said. “He blocked shots, he challenged others, and he dominated the glass.”

As Stevens alluded to, Valanciunas was the Robin to DeRozan’s Batman. He was exactly what Toronto needed in the paint at both ends of the court, and exactly what the Celtics could not combat as their attention focused solely on DeRozan.

Still, though, the Celtics maintained the possibility of snagging a win at the Air Canada Centre. The two teams were tied at 104-104 with 2:33 left in the game. However, the C’s went cold down the stretch and mustered up only two more points the rest of the way, both via free throws from Thomas.

“I think they ratcheted it up at the start of the fourth, and we answered,” said Al Horford, who scored 14 points on the night but could not find a rhythm with his jumper. “They upped the pressure a little bit and we didn’t really handle it as well as we could have.”

Thomas attempted to carry the Celtics to the winner’s circle by scoring nine points during the final frame, but Toronto eventually forced the ball out of his hands and his teammates did not provide him with any support.

“They got more aggressive with me,” Thomas explained of Toronto’s late-game defense. “They put two guys on me even when I didn’t come off pick-and-rolls, with (Cory) joseph and those guys full-out denying me.

“We’ve got to figure out how to play when teams do that. Other guys have to make plays on that end.”

On this night, no other Celtics did make key plays. At the other end, DeRozan and Valanciunas did. DeRozan carried the Raptors back from a 16-point, second-half deficit while Valanciunas cleaned up the crumbs on the interior.

This one stings for the Celtics. They flew to Toronto with the intention of taking over the division lead and propelling into second place in the conference. Instead, they fly back to Boston with a sour taste in their mouths after falling two games behind the Raptors in the standings.

Boston could have won this game, but Toronto snagged it away. For that, the current kings of the Atlantic Division deserve plenty of credit.