Celtics could pull closer to Raptors with win

By Mike Shalin, The Sports Xchange  |  March 31, 2018 at 1:14 AM
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The Toronto Raptors hold a solid three-game Eastern Conference lead as they come down the stretch of the long NBA season.

That kind of advantage with this short amount of time remaining should be safe, but is it?

The Raptors still have to play the second-place, battered and bruised Boston Celtics twice, the first meeting Saturday night at TD Garden.

While Toronto has alternated losses and wins in its last six games after an 11-game winning streak, the Celtics have reeled off five straight wins, the last four on the road, with what can only be described as a skeleton lineup.

Boston played Wednesday without Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart -- Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis are out for the season -- and won a game that Utah needed on Jaylen Brown's 3-pointer with a tenth of a second left.

"I don't think it's really nothing new," Brown said after the game. "We've been doing it all year. I know the way we've won, with last-second shots and things like that, have been big, but we've been doing it all year. It's nothing new to us."

It seems no matter who coach Brad Stevens puts on the court, the team has a chance to win, which is why he may well be in a two-man race for NBA coach of the year with Toronto's Dwane Casey.

SB Nation made that two-man claim in a piece that said the award could come down to the two remaining games between the top seeds in the Eastern Conference.

The Raptors lead the Celtics by three games, but if Boston sweeps the two games, it would only have to make up one more because it would win a tiebreaker by taking the season series 3-1.

Though just 3-3 in the last six games, the Raptors are 14-3 in the last 17. Their bench continues to be a strength.

Fred Van Vleet, a key reserve, had thoughts about the Celtics.

"Luck of the Irish, man," he said of Boston's fifth game-winning shot in the last five seconds, tops in the league. "I was just talking about it this morning, I don't if it's because they're on TV so much or if every TV game they have, they always win on a buzzer-beater."

The Celtics also have 14 wins coming back from double-digit deficits, which is tied for second in the NBA.

"They kinda hang around and then last four minutes they're down eight and you know they're going to pull it out," Van Vleet said. "Give them a lot of credit. They've been able to excel in those late-game scenarios this year, but hopefully they've used all their magic up in the regular season."

Irving and his troublesome left knee are out for the rest of the regular season after a procedure to remove a wire. Smart is also gone until the playoffs. Horford and Morris are day-to-day, the latter picking up much of the offensive slack with Irving out.

During a weekly radio appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub, Celtics president Danny Ainge said about Irving: "I'm not concerned at all. I'm just saying, like, his knee is very structurally sound. It's not like a long-term thing.

"There could still be some challenges. We tried to do a minimal amount of surgery at this moment and it might require some more. But we don't know any of that. I'm just guessing. I don't know. I'll probably have a much better update on how he's doing when I return. I'm with the team right now and I'll see him (Friday)."

The Raptors and Celtics have split two games this season, both winning at home. Toronto is shooting for its fifth straight 1-1 season at TD Garden.

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