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Lewenberg: Raptors schooled by veteran Celtics

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Josh Lewenberg
3/13/2013 11:27:32 PM
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Boston is not a city the Raptors (25-40) generally enjoy visiting and Wednesday's walloping reinforced that notion.

Despite the return of Rudy Gay -- who donned a Raptors uniform for the first time at the TD Garden -- Toronto suffered a familiar fate in catastrophic defeat, 112-88 to the Celtics (35-29), the franchise's 10th straight loss in Boston.

Gay had 19 points and seven rebounds after resting a lingering back injury in Sunday's win over Cleveland but his presence wasn't enough to disrupt the Celtics attack. Boston shot a sparkling 51 per cent and had seven players score in double figures, led by reserve Jeff Green, who had 20. Paul Pierce poured in 15 while Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford each added 12.

For the Raptors, who committed 18 turnovers on the night, DeMar DeRozan recorded 12 of his 17 points in the third quarter -- where the game really slipped away from Toronto -- and rookie Terrence Ross scored in double figures in his third straight outing with 13 off the bench.

Fast Breaking Points

- Learning Experience

I guess you could call this a learning experience for a young Raptors team still searching for their identity, although that's probably being too kind. Following a competitive first quarter, this got out of hand in a hurry. The warning signs were there early on as Toronto committed five quick turnovers, miscues that Boston was unable to capitalize on. However, the shrewd and defensive-minded Celtics aren't likely to let you get away with careless mistakes for very long, nor did they at the Garden on Wednesday.

Boston simply wore the Raptors out. They out-played them, out-smarted them and got in their heads until eventually (late in the third), the Raptors gave up. It was a drop-off in effort, a general lack of fight that we haven't seen much of from this team since the dreaded Western road trip that dropped their record to 4-18 in early December.

The Stat: 24 points is Toronto's second largest margin of defeat this season (32, in Utah on Dec. 7). The Raptors haven't won in Boston since Jan. 23, 2008, having lost their last 10 visits, including the previous five by an average of 24.2.

- One Step Behind

The Raptors went into Wednesday's game knowing they'd need to run and take Boston out of its comfort zone to be successful, something Dwane Casey discussed at length when sizing up the Celtics after practice the day prior. Even without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have a great understanding of the system that's allowed them to stay relevant despite injuries and advanced age, credit to Doc and the coaching staff. They tend to lull you to sleep and create opportunities for themselves with their defence. That's precisely how they imposed their will on Toronto, specifically in the second quarter where they shot 58 per cent and outscored the Raptors by 10, holding them to 6-of-17 shooting.

Playing at a faster pace is not something that can be flipped on and off like a switch, evident in a game like this. It's an identity, a mentality they must adopt and commit to. Casey stressed it consistently early in the year but mostly abandoned that philosophy when his defence began to slip and Jose Calderon took over for Lowry. With Lowry back in the driver's seat and Gay on board, Toronto has the personnel to run and the team has had some success doing so recently. Ranked 28th in fast-break points on the season, they've been the sixth best team in that category over their previous four games. That should be a priority once again in camp next year and wouldn't be a bad thing to stress on a nightly basis as this season comes to a close.

Gay's athleticism is one of his most endearing qualities as a player but it's debatable how much of that he has at his disposal on a possession-to-possession basis right now. On some trips down the floor, he looks like his old self, on others he's clearly hampered by the injury, the unfortunate reality of a lingering back ailment. His shot selection and decision-making was noticeably better than the last we saw him -- a 7-for-26, six turnover performance in Los Angeles -- but his body simply won't cooperate with his aggressive mindset. He spent more time than usual with his back to the basket in Boston and although I believe he can be effective in the post -- his length and deceiving strength give him an advantage when he's used that way -- I wonder if his mobility (or lack thereof) is restricting him from doing much else at the moment. Again, if he isn't healthy enough to perform at the high-level expected of him (and that he expects from himself), it might be best to shut him down for the time being.

The Stat: The Raptors didn't record their first fast-break point until early in the third quarter and were outscored 20-11 in that category on the night.

- Bargnani's Lost Season

Another season has come and gone for Andrea Bargnani with Wednesday's news that the Raptors' forward is expected to be sidelined the rest of the way with an avulsion sprain of the right elbow. He sustained the injury in the first quarter of Friday's loss to the Lakers and it's said to be unrelated to the torn elbow ligament that cost him 26 games earlier this season. So there you have it. For the second straight year, Bargnani will miss more games than he's played. His nightmare 2012-13 campaign is in the books and it looks like this: (if you're not squeamish, read on)

35 games, 12.7 points (6.8 less than last year, lowest since 2008), 3.7 rebounds (1.8 less than last year, ties career low), 40 per cent shooting from the field, 31 per cent from three-point range (both the second lowest marks of his career).

The seven-year vet has appeared in 132 of a possible 230 games over the last three seasons and when it's all said and done, he'll have missed 98 contests (43 per cent) over that span. In that time, he's been relegated to the sideline with various ailments including: a sore ankle, strained wrist, lingering calf issues, a collection of elbow injuries and "flu-like symptoms". Although many have questioned his toughness and willingness to play through pain -- both fair, albeit immeasurable queries -- I'd look to his conditioning first and foremost. Year in, year out, does he show up to camp ready to withstand the grind of a full season? There's no doubt he's had some unfortunate luck in terms of injuries but it's also fair to say that he hasn't taken advantage of the opportunities he's been given when healthy.

The question on everyone's mind is, has Bargnani played his last game for the Raptors? It seems more than likely that he has. The seven-year relationship between the former first overall pick and the franchise that drafted him (and its fans) has endured far more downs than ups. The trade for Gay signified a new direction for the Raps and as Bryan Colangelo has admitted, a change of scenery could be in Bargnani's best interest at this point. However, the "oft-injured" label isn't likely to endear potential suitors to the Raptors' forward, thus moving him for anything of value will be one of Colangelo's greatest challenges -- assuming he's around to undertake it.

His contract -- still owed $23 million over the next two seasons -- was signed pre-lockout, meaning he's one of three Raptors players eligible to be waived under the amnesty provision this summer (Linas Kleiza and Amir Johnson, who isn't going anywhere, being the other two). Although amnestying Bargnani once seemed out of the question -- and is still highly unlikely -- it remains an option for the team in the event that a trade cannot be consummated. Even in a last resort scenario, it would be awfully difficult to justify paying a player of that pedigree, with that contract, to go away without getting any compensation in return. I doubt they'll seriously consider it, nor should they.

Based on his injury history and recent performance, moving him will be difficult but not impossible. After all, Colangelo has pulled off minor miracles before, parlaying the contracts of Rafael Araujo, Eric Williams and Hedo Turkoglu into useful pieces in his time with Toronto (Note: Turkoglu, like Bargnani, was his misstep to begin with). One way or another, this should make for an interesting offseason storyline. Stay tuned.

Notables

The Celtics have now defeated Toronto in each of the first three match-ups this season. The final meeting, in Toronto on Apr. 17, will be the last game of the season for both teams. ... Boston has won 10 straight games at home dating back to January, seven of them against winning teams. The Celtics have gone 15-7 without Rondo, who tore his ACL and was lost for the season on Jan. 25. ... Celtics milestones: Pierce passed Charles Barkley for 20th place on the NBA's all-time scoring list (23,763) and Garnett leapfrogged Jerry West for 15th (25,201). Raptors guard Sebastian Telfair was ejected after being assessed his second technical foul at the end of the third quarter.

Up Next

After defeating the Celtics and snapping their 10-game skid, the Charlotte Bobcats (14-50) will visit the Air Canada Centre, 7pm et Friday, looking to do something they haven't done since November; win consecutive games. From worst to first, the Raptors host the reigning champion Miami Heat (49-14), winners of 20 straight, on Sunday afternoon at 1pm et. Both games can be seen on TSN2.

Rejected (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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