The Raptors used the front door to usher their return to the playoffs on a night that was as close to post-season basketball without the stakes. It was close, dramatic, featuring late-game heroics and good coaching, the kind of elements fans will see every night when the NBA’s second season begins in late April. The Raptors beat the visiting Celtics 105-103 on Friday night to officially book their ticket to the playoffs for the first time in six years. Much of the night was so unlike what the playoffs embody, but the ending was very much what the playoffs are about. Toronto couldn’t make any stops in the fourth quarter, blowing a big lead and allowing the Celtics to reach the 100-point mark first, often the barometer in determining the game’s eventual winner. And it would be Canadian Kelly Olynyk, who didn’t get many minutes in the opening half, providing the C’s with a 100-97 lead. The Raptors couldn’t buy a basket, shots coming up short, the shot clock expiring. But when Toronto forced misses, its offence was fuelled, tying the game, 101-101 with 1:14 remaining. A DeMar DeRozan bucket on a fadeway would give the Raptors the lead, but Rajon Rondo quickly tied it on Boston’s ensuing possession, taking his man off a dribble that was simply too easy. An Amir Johnson put-back with 7.1 seconds left restored Toronto’s lead. The crowd held its collective breath when Kyle Lowry crumpled to the floor after landing on Avery Bradley’s foot. Lowry released an outside shot that turned out to be an air ball with 3:09 left in the first half and the Raptors leading 50-49. He returned for the second half, but Lowry was clearly in discomfort. When the Raptors began their back-to-back set in Cleveland on Tuesday, Lowry twice had to leave the game, the victim of a stomach virus. The playoff buzz was in the air at the Air Canada Centre, but the style of play was nowhere near what post-season basketball demands when virtually every possession is critical. If the Raptors think they’ll be able to get up and down the court, get easy lanes to the basket or get sloppy with the basketball, they’re fooling themselves. Playoff basketball is a half-court grind where opponents take away options, a grind-it-out style that begins and ends with defence. Too often during the opening half, the Celtics were given too many looks. Far too frequently, the Raptors were making careless passes that led to the predictable turnover and easy run out. What was encouraging was how the Raptors went inside to Jonas Valanciunas, who produced one of his better overall games Wednesday night in Toronto’s 99-90 win in Boston. If anything, the Raptors needed to get their big man more touches against an undersized Celtics team that starts Kris Humphries at centre. In the opening quarter, Valanciunas made six attempts to the line, draining all of his foul shots in helping Toronto jump out to a 32-26 lead. When the Raptors were casual, the Celtics pounced on their foe, leading by as many as eight points. When the Raptors were playing with intensity and intelligently, they were able to take control. But this Raptors team lacks a killer instinct, a trait that allowed Boston to get right back into the game. Lowry’s injury clearly had an effect on the team’s morale, but the Raptors regrouped. At the end of second quarter, Chuck Hayes tipped an entry pass that would trigger a fast break. When Greivis Vasquez couldn’t finish, Tyler Hansbrough’s hustle play led to a basket with fewer than one second left. At the break, the Raptors were leading 56-53. Just as the team was making its way back to the court, word began to filter that Lowry was getting his right ankle re-taped and that he would return. Clearly, the Raptors are a different team without their floor general, a worse team. Greivis is best described as serviceable, but his lack of quickness is hard to mask. As much as the Raptors want to manage Lowry’s minutes and perhaps even sit him out a game or two, they can’t. Toronto had possession to begin the second half, the Celtics having Bradley hound Lowry as soon as the Raptors made the inbounds pass. When the Raptors had John Salmons on the floor, that freed up Lowry by having Salmons guard Rondo.
Raptors clinch playoff spot with win over Celtics
Toronto Sun | Mar 29