TORONTO -- The Celtics know how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA. In two days, Boston went from first place in the Atlantic Division to fourth. In the span of 48 minutes last night at Air Canada Centre, the Celtics were up in the first quarter, down in the second, on the way up in the third, and back down in the fourth.
The result of such inconsistency was Boston's 106-102 loss to Toronto, yet another defeat in which defensive shortcomings and poor possessions in the closing minutes were to blame.
Before the Celtics (5-10) play at Chicago Monday night, they could see their fortunes change again, depending on how quickly Paul Pierce and Wally Szczerbiak heal. Pierce took a hard fall on a drive to the basket in the third quarter, landing on his right elbow.
Pierce's elbow swelled during the remainder of the game, as he worried about extending his arm when taking shots. Szczerbiak sprained his left ankle on the final possession of the game. They will both be reevaluated today.
The injuries only add to the list of Doc Rivers's concerns. There are turnovers (16 for 17 points against Toronto), defensive breakdowns, the disappearance of aggressive offensive play late in games, and a lack of physical and mental toughness to worry about. Rivers must find a way to convince his players that they can't simply pour in points, ignore other aspects of the game, and hope to win.
"You cannot win outscoring teams, especially when you're young, because you're not smart enough to do it," said Rivers. "You've got to play with great energy and defend."
As usual with the Celtics this season, easier said than done. The Raptors (6-10) shot 55 percent, including 65 percent in the second quarter when they built an 11-point lead (58-47) on a reverse layup by Anthony Parker. It was one of many baskets Toronto scored by beating a defender off the dribble.
During a 16-4 run in the second quarter, six of the eight Raptor field goals came on layups or dunks. It was an unacceptable ratio for everyone in the visitors' locker room, especially since Rivers and his players emphasized the importance of a consistent effort on defense from shootaround yesterday morning until the final buzzer last night.
"If everybody took pride in getting defensive stops like everybody takes pride in scoring, we would be a better defensive team," said Kendrick Perkins. "When we do the coverage, it works. But straight-line drives from guys beating you off the dribble, we've got to get better [at stopping that] at every position. You can live with an All-Star like Chris Bosh getting 25 [points] and 11 [rebounds], but you can't live with the other players, the Parkers getting at you."
Boston shot 71 percent in the third and closed to 81-78 by the end of the quarter. Despite his hard fall with 5:24 remaining, Pierce scored 11 of his 19 points in the quarter. Watching Pierce break out of a first-half scoring slump, when he went 1 for 3 from the floor, it was easy to see how the Celtics could believe it was possible to defeat the Raptors simply by racking up the points.
But that mind-set did not help them in a tight game down the stretch, when a modicum of defense might have been the difference. After Al Jefferson tied the score, 97-97, with a pair of free throws, Jorge Garbajosa put Toronto ahead for good with a pair from the line.
The Raptors extended their advantage to 103-97 with 2:29 remaining on a 15-foot fadeaway and a pair of free throws from Bosh. The Celtics closed within 4 on a fast-break layup by Delonte West, but that was their final field goal.
While Bosh was busy setting the defensive tone for Toronto by blocking layup attempts by Ryan Gomes and then Pierce, Boston lacked aggressiveness at both ends. The Celtics closed to 105-102 from the line with 36.6 seconds remaining. But 21 seconds later, West fouled Bosh and the Toronto forward made 1 of 2 to push the home team ahead by 4. The Celtics tried desperately to hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds, but it would not have been enough.
"If you can't get stops down the stretch in this league, it is tough to win games," said Pierce. "It puts so much pressure on your offense to score every time down. There are going to be nights where shots aren't going to fall, but one constant we have to have is our defense."
It is anyone's guess when and for how long the Boston defense will show up.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.