TORONTO — Facing a late-season collapse, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors focused on what took them to the top of the NBA's Eastern Conference: defence.
DeRozan led the Raptors with 16 points as Toronto earned a crucial 96-78 win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday. The victory came after back-to-back losses in Boston on Sunday and in Cleveland on Tuesday as the Raptors allowed their conference rivals to score 110 points or more.
"To be a good team, that's how you have to respond," said DeRozan. "When you have games like we had last night, you have to understand let's tighten up, understand our mistakes and come out the next night and handle business."
Toronto had lost five of its past 10 games heading into Wednesday night but now has a three-game lead over Boston for first in the Atlantic Division and the East. The Cavaliers lead the Central Division and sit third in the conference but are eight games back of the Raptors.
All three teams have four regular-season games remaining.
"Every single one of them is extremely important," said DeRozan. "Once next weekend starts it's literally win or go home. There's no 'my bads' or 'I'll get the next one.' These four games are critical and us playing extremely hard and having a rhythm and understand that our confidence has to be at an all-time high headed into next week."
Lowry finished with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists, his highest scoring outing for the Raptors (56-22) in the past four games. More importantly, he led Toronto with a plus-20 defensive rating, an improvement over his minus-10 in Boston and minus-9 in Cleveland.
"It's not redemption, it's my job to come out here, be professional and be a leader," said Lowry. "I didn't make shots tonight again but I had a better effort. We had a great team effort. We held a great team under 80 points.
"We didn't score the way we needed to score but we played defence the way we needed to."
Fred VanVleet came off the bench for 15 points while fellow reserve Delon Wright had eight points, nine rebounds and eight assists.
Marcus Morris had 21 for the Celtics (53-25), who would have won the tiebreaker between the two teams and moved to just a game back of Toronto for first in the division and conference with a win.
Guard Terry Rozier had two points and nine rebounds in his return to the Celtics lineup after missing Tuesday's 106-102 loss to Milwaukee with a left ankle sprain.
Lowry's struggles were a big part of Toronto's recent malaise. He was held to just five points and three assists by Cavaliers guard Jose Calderon on Tuesday. That was after he had three 11-point games in a row. In that four-game span, he shot .318 on field goals.
He looked better in Wednesday's opening quarter, sinking a three-pointer and dishing out three assists, while DeRozan led Toronto with five points. Still, the Raptors trailed Boston 20-15 after the first.
Toronto played its best in the second quarter, outscoring the Celtics 29-13. That included a 9-2 run that gave the Raptors a lead they would not relinquish. Lowry surpassed his scoring from the loss in Cleveland, with seven points and three assists as Toronto led 43-33 at the break.
"I thought our defensive focus was there, our attention to detail, guys were where they were supposed to be, a few hiccups but a big improvement over last night," said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. "Again, it's about competition, it's about competing at a high level with a big picture in mind, not just trying to win that one game. We're trying to do something special."
DeRozan had eight points and Lowry four in the third as the Raptors all-star backcourt continued to find its rhythm, helping build a 67-53 lead.
A one-handed slam dunk by Serge Ibaka with 5:14 left in the game brought the sell-out crowd of 19,963 at Air Canada Centre to its feet and made it 85-70. Ibaka and VanVleet dominated play in the final quarter, with nine and eight points respectively, as Casey rested his starters.
Toronto hosts Indiana on Friday and Orlando on Sunday, then hits the road with stops in Detroit and Miami.
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