TORONTO — Through three quarters, it was one of the Celtics’ typical performances in Toronto. They were being outhustled by the Raptors, they were committing silly turnovers, and they were forcing shots. The result was a 10-point deficit, and it fully appeared the Celtics would head home to face the Lakers with another inexcusable loss at Air Canada Centre.
Perhaps injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger have increased their fortitude, because instead of succumbing quietly in front of a raucous crowd invigorated by newcomer Rudy Gay, the Celtics roared back behind the scoring of Leandro Barbosa and the defense of Paul Pierce.
A team that has been chased down and passed here on several occasions over the past few years pulled the same trick on the Raptors, winning Wednesday night, 99-95, after Barbosa scored 12 of his 14 points in the final quarter.
The Celtics began the quarter with a 10-0 run, then took the lead for good with a 9-0 surge behind the playmaking of Barbosa, who scored on an array of runners and floaters. When the Raptors tried to rally, Pierce drew two offensive fouls on Gay, who was 1 for 9 from the field in the fourth quarter.
Gay finished with 25 points but just 2 in the final quarter, and Kevin Garnett scored a season-high 27 with 10 rebounds in a masterful performance. It was the Celtics’ fifth consecutive win — without Rondo — as they continue to cement their new identity of increased versatility.
Despite leading most of the first three quarters until a meltdown late in the third, coach Doc Rivers was disappointed with the overall effort, which was typical of how the Celtics play in Toronto, where they had lost three of the previous four.
“I didn’t like how we played most of the game,” Rivers said. “We just kind of hung in there. The beginning of the game [2:57 left in the first quarter], I called a timeout. I just didn’t think we played with a lot of speed, a lot of force. This was a good win for us because we didn’t have it and we kept looking for the right lineup, the right group. The last group, it was really small and it did wonders.”
Trailing, 79-69, to begin the fourth quarter, Pierce walked toward teammate Jason Terry and told him, “We gotta run.” And the Celtics scored 30 fourth-quarter points, using a stifling defense to create turnovers or one-shot opportunities for Toronto.
After falling behind, 85-81, following baskets by Kyle Lowry and Alan Anderson, the Celtics scored the next 9 points as Barbosa took advantage of good floor spacing to attack the basket.
Barbosa was picked up in November to supplement the backcourt but had been an afterthought until the past two weeks. In the five games Rondo has missed, Barbosa has averaged 11.2 points.
“Especially with the [smaller] unit we had on the floor, he’s such a great guy that can attack the basket,” Rivers said. “When you have Kevin, Jeff Green, Paul, and [Jason Terry] there’s no [defensive] help coming and you can attack the basket. When he sees that, he becomes really aggressive.”
Garnett capitalized on his matchups, against burly Aaron Gray or undersized Amir Johnson. Showing why many NBA clubs may be interested in dealing for him, Garnett converted an 18-footer with 2:45 left for a 92-87 lead and he finally put it away with a 12-foot fadeaway with 46.9 seconds left for a 5-point margin.
“We’re fighters, we’re a team that’s going to compete for 48 minutes, it’s not always pretty,” Garnett said. “I watched myself during the Clippers game [Sunday] and I wasn’t really proud or happy with the way I played. I thought I was passive. I thought I put guys in weird positions.
“Rondo going out and Paul and I really having to facilitate the responsibility of being leaders, there are certain shots I gotta take and certain situations I gotta be aggressive.”
Pierce had 12 points and 11 rebounds but it was a forgettable offensive night. He once again became enamored with the 3-point shot, attempting seven in his 11 field goal attempts. He scored 2 points on 0-for-7 shooting in the final two quarters, but he decided to help on the boards (eight) and defending Gay, who whizzed through the Celtics defense with ease through the first three quarters.
The Celtics have constant trouble with athletic wingmen because they don’t have the defensive matchup, but Pierce filled that role late in the game.
“There’s going to be nights where our offense is not going to be there,” he said. “We gotta find ways to win. Sometimes it’s not going to always be pretty. Like tonight we didn’t play that well but we found a way to win.
“This team’s not going to panic. You have enough experience on this ballclub, guys who know to win games down the stretch.
“Probably normally, a young team down 10 in the fourth would have caved in, but this team is not going to cave in. We got experience, knowhow, and we find a way.”