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Celtics' game goes south

They leave winning ways at border, suffer untimely defeat

TORONTO -- When the Celtics look back at the end of this season and wonder why they are not a playoff team, they can point to a game like the one last night at the Air Canada Centre. There have been plenty of contests Boston coulda, shoulda, woulda won this year. But what sets the Celtics' 111-105 loss to the Raptors apart is the timing.

Boston (24-35) passed through customs on a roll, having won six of its last nine contests, having taken Miami to the wire and held off Indiana at the buzzer, having returned from a four-game trip west with a 3-1 record. The Celtics wanted anyone who would listen to believe they finally were making a serious push toward the postseason, that there was still a chance they could grab the No. 8 seed. If that was true, they shoulda defeated the equally young, equally inconsistent Raptors (21-38), even without the services of starting point guard Delonte West for most of the game because of a strained right groin.

But by the time Boston seemed to realize a win over Toronto would mean more in the standings than playing Miami close, it was too late.

''It hurts," said Paul Pierce, who had 33 points. ''Every loss hurts at this point in the season, especially when we're so far behind trying to make up games. Hopefully, we can get back on track in Washington [tomorrow night]. We've got to move on. [The Raptors] would have beaten most teams [last night] the way they shot the ball."

The Celtics trailed by 10 after a pair of Jose Calderon free throws with 1:55 remaining in the fourth. Then, as if suddenly snapped to attention, Boston reeled off a 7-1 run over the next 53 seconds and closed within 4 (105-101). After the ensuing timeout, when Pierce took the floor with Tony Allen, Orien Greene, Gerald Green, and Wally Szczerbiak, the captain told former teammate Mike James the Celtics would win the game. Pierce really believed they had a legitimate chance. James was wise enough to stay quiet and let his play speak for him as he made eight trips to the line in the final minute (he went 6 for 8) to seal the game.

''When we score over 100 points, we've got to find a way to win the game," said Szczerbiak (23 points). ''I thought we played hard as a team. We're not going to quit. When we're down, we can always come back. When we get hot, we can score. I don't think the problem was scoring points. I think the problem was at the defensive end."

Judging from last night, they not only spell ''defence" differently in Canada, they play it differently. Or not at all as far as the Raptors were concerned, and not on the perimeter as far as the Celtics were concerned. Although Toronto led by as many as 8 points in the first, 9 in the second, and 10 in the third, the home team could not hold onto any sizable advantage for any length of time because it could not stop the Celtics. Boston finished the game shooting 55.4 percent from the floor. Toronto shot 54 percent, including 46 percent from 3-point range. The Raptors' proficiency from outside more than made up for their inadequacy inside; they were outscored, 58-16, in the paint.

Shots from the arc plagued Boston all night as Toronto hit 11 of 24 3-point attempts, including big ones from Matt Bonner in the second and fourth and Charlie Villanueva and Morris Peterson in the third. With 2 minutes 48 seconds remaining in the fourth, James appeared to deal a decisive blow with a 3-pointer from the left wing that gave Toronto its largest lead (102-89). Boston could not respond in kind from the arc with West, the team's best 3-pointer shooter, sidelined.

With 85 seconds left in the third, Bonner found Peterson on the perimeter for a 3-pointer that pushed Toronto ahead, 82-72. But Boston knew it could shoot its way back into the game. And the visitors did, staging a 9-0 run to pull within 1 with 9:49 left in the fourth. But the Celtics allowed Bonner and James to keep making shots from 3-point range as the Raptors regained their lead and then some.

''We had our chances," said Pierce, who also had 7 rebounds and 5 assists and whose team entered halftime ahead, 52-51. ''We just didn't make the necessary stops. We got them to 1, but it was tough stopping them all night. They shot the 3-ball well. They moved the ball well.

''We said before the game that they were a good offensive team. We had to get to their scorers. And all their big scorers had good games tonight, and it's tough to withstand it when that happens."

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