Raptors take advantage of short-handed Celtics, now one win from East's No. 1 seed

Man, did the Toronto Raptors need that.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Raps, who went from touting their belief that they can win an NBA championship this season to ripping off three high-profile losses to fellow Eastern Conference contenders — two to LeBron JamesCleveland Cavaliers, and one to the Boston Celtics — to give fans cause for concern that the bad not-so-old days were here again. Making matters worse, as Toronto wound its way through a five-losses-in-eight-games rough patch, the injury-plagued Celtics somehow managed to go on a run despite playing without a slew of important players, ripping off six straight wins prior to Tuesday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Suddenly, a Celtics team that had ceded the top spot in the conference to the Raptors right before Valentine’s Day had a chance to get within one game of the No. 1 spot in the season’s final days. A fourth loss to a top Eastern team in just two weeks — this one coming against a Celtics team with hardly any healthy ball-handlers, playing without Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart and Shane Larkin — might’ve sent Raptors fans over the edge.

Well, crisis averted, Toronto.

DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors got a much-needed win over a depleted Celtics team to move within one win of locking up the East’s No. 1 seed. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

It wasn’t a pretty game, with both teams coming off losses on the back end of a back-to-back. Threadbare Boston just couldn’t find any playmaking — 10 total assists, as a team, against 17 turnovers that led to 29 Raptor points, because Jayson Tatum and Kadeem Allen aren’t supposed to be running point for a playoff team. (Or, at this stage in their careers, for anybody, really). As the Celtics curdled, Toronto found its personality, rediscovering rhythm after a slow start thanks once again to its haymaker second unit (including, this time, delightful Brazilian center Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira!) and bounce-back performances from Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.

The Raptors cranked up the defense enough to stifle a tired and punchless Celtics team, and got just enough offense going after halftime, to cruise to a 96-78 win that — if only briefly — restored the team’s positive, friendly vibes …

… and, arguably as importantly, put Toronto on the doorstep of clinching home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.

DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 16 points, albeit on 17 shots, though he did knock down three of his four 3-point tries. After a trash-heap of an outing against Cleveland, Lowry looked a bit more like his All-Star self against Boston; while the numbers didn’t pop off the page (13 points, five rebounds, five assists, a steal, a block), the activity was there, and the Raps outscored Boston by 20 points in Kyle’s 32 1/2 minutes of work.

When he wasn’t bossing the game, perfectly cast understudy Fred VanVleet took the reins, scoring 15 points with four assists and three rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench to pace the Raptors’ dynamite reserve corps. Fellow backup guard Delon Wright was everywhere, using his length to plug passing lanes and his smarts to get a step ahead of the play, and damn near winding up with a triple-double as a result — eight points, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocks in 27 minutes.

Add in a strong night from Ibaka (15 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks, sound defensive work away from the ball) and Toronto, even on an off night, still had way too much firepower for the short-handed C’s to match.

Marcus Morris (21 points, five rebounds) and Greg Monroe (17 points, eight rebounds, three assists) provided buckets off the bench, but hardly anybody else in a Celtics uniform could get anything to go. Boston missed a smooth two-thirds of their shots, going 25-for-75 from the field, and made just three of 22 3-point tries on the evening on their way to a season-low 78 points. With spot-starting point guard Terry Rozier still looking somewhat the worse for wear after missing a game with a sprained ankle, the Celtics couldn’t generate good looks or hit bad ones, and on nights like that, all the grit and competitiveness in the world can only matter so much.

With the win, the Raptors earned a split of their head-to-head season series with the Celtics and clinched the tiebreaker with the C’s based on conference record. Toronto now leads Boston by three games with four games left on the schedule, and can clinch the East’s top spot on Friday by knocking off the Indiana Pacers. The Celtics, on the other hand, are now essentially locked into the No. 2 spot.

Both teams are left to watch the unsnarling of the traffic jam at the bottom of the conference, where a half-game separates the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards and Bucks in the 6-7-8 slots … and then, if they permit themselves to think down the road a piece, about how the 3-4-5 race between the Cavaliers, Pacers and rampaging Philadelphia 76ers plays out, and what that’d all mean for eventual second-round matchups.

For now, though, neither team can afford to think too much about that. The Celtics need to worry about getting as healthy as they can, and the Raptors need to worry about getting as much of their bad recent mojo out of their system as possible to avoid a compounding effect when the postseason, and all of its bad mojo, rears its ugly head. We’ll soon find out how each team fared in its task, but if nothing else, the Raptors’ win gave them a bit of breathing room, and a much-needed exhalation.

More NBA coverage:

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

More from Yahoo Sports:
Coach asks NFL prospect: What if I punched you?
Yankees fans boo Stanton during his 5-strikeout game
Are Pats and Lamar Jackson a match made in heaven?
Dan Wetzel: The bromance of Phil and Tiger