Raptors’ Speed, Physicality Wears Down C's in Toronto

TORONTO – It’s unusual for the Boston Celtics to collectively lack mojo for an entire game. Tuesday night’s effort against the Toronto Raptors was an exception, however, as the C's came out flat and remained flat from start to finish at Air Canada Centre.

Playing with a low level of intensity will not fly when facing a team of Toronto's caliber, and Boston paid the price with a 111-91 loss, marking its second-largest margin of defeat of the season.

Brad Stevens could tell from the get-go that his team didn’t have its typical stuff as it struggled to match the Raptors' aggressiveness from the opening tip.

“I thought you could see it with our first six minutes of the game,” admitted Stevens, whose first-place squad now holds a slim, one-game lead over Raptors in the Eastern Conference standings. “We gave up 15 points in the first five minutes. We looked slow, we didn’t look ready to react to their speed or their physicality, and I think that that probably was the case the whole night.”

From the start, the Celtics had difficulty finding an offensive rhythm. This was in part due to the their lack of intensity, and in part due to Toronto’s strong defensive tactics, such as limiting Al Horford’s playmaking ability by pressing him as soon as he crossed half court.

“I haven’t seen much of that all year,” said the C’s All-Star big man who was held to a season-low two points, along with just three assists. “I wasn’t able to run a lot of the offense at times like it’s expected of the bigs. They just did a good job of setting the tone early.”

Toronto also set the tone by torching Boston’s league-leading defense, largely thanks to an exceptional shooting performance from Kyle Lowry. The star point guard saw only 25 minutes of action, but that gave him enough time to rack up 23 points on six 3-pointers and five free-throw makes.

“He made a lot of shots, and when he gets going he’s a tough guy to stop,” said his counterpart, Kyre Irving, who returned from a quad injury and scored 17 points during 22 minutes of play. “I’ve seen it for a few years now. When he starts shooting those pull-up jumpers going left, he’s hard to stop.”

Lowry scored a game-high 13 points during the first half to help lead the Raptors into the break with a 58-37 lead.

Facing a deficit of that magnitude is typically not too daunting for the Celtics, who actually have a winning record when trailing by 12 or more points at any point of a game. Stevens, however, had a feeling that his team wasn’t in store for one of those runs, and it turned out that he was right.

Toronto maintained a substantial lead throughout the third quarter, and Boston’s coach opted to rest his starters during the final frame with the belief that the game was out of hand.

“We’ve been unbelievable at coming back, but this looked different and felt different than some of those comebacks,” said Stevens. “And so I thought that we were going to have a hard time getting back in that thing, so that’s why we didn’t go back to any of our starters (except for Aron Baynes) after the third quarter.”

The Celtics will surely revisit film of Tuesday’s game ahead of their next matchup against the Raptors on March 31 at TD Garden, but in the meantime, they want to forget the details of the ugly contest as soon as possible so that they can move onward.

“It’s onto the next one,” said Irving, who accepted much of the blame for Tuesday’s loss. “That’s the attitude that you have to have.”

The next one –a matchup against the Wizards in Washington, D.C. – should be another challenging test for Boston. But if the Celtics can bring heighten their intensity and maintain it for 48 minutes, then they should be in store for a more competitive matchup than the one they experienced Tuesday night.