|xxxxxxxxx (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)|
The Celtics' starting five had to work as hard in the fourth quarter as the fans sitting across from them in courtside seats.
With their starters on the bench, the Celtics finished off a 112-84 blowout of the Raptors at TD Banknorth Garden last night. Boston improved to an NBA-best 16-2 and has won five straight.
The Celtics are now 10-0 at home, two wins shy of the franchise's best Garden start, in 1984-85. They are 5-0 in the Atlantic Division and hold a seven-game lead over the second-place Raptors (10-10).
"Historically, it's cool, it's good," said Kevin Garnett. "But the focus here is to be consistent and to build toward something post-basketball [regular season]. Every day that we come in here and suit up and practice, it's to build toward just that.
"We want to be very solid and consistent when it comes playoff time. We want to know who we are and we want to have that identity."
For Celtics fans worried about their star trio of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen playing too many minutes, this game was definitely to your liking.
Garnett scored a game-high 23 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in only 25 minutes. Pierce scored 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting, dished 6 assists, and grabbed 5 rebounds in 28 minutes. Allen added 13 points and 6 rebounds in 27 minutes. In fact, no Celtics starter played more than 28 minutes.
Boston shot 52.7 percent and made 25 of 30 free throws. The Celtics led by as many as 39 points and limited Toronto to 42.5 percent shooting.
"They just beat us," said Raptors coach Sam Mitchell. "I don't know what you want me to say. They just beat us. Good basketball team. They're probably the best team in the league right now."
Recently, the Celtics have played teams that were either greatly overmatched or undermanned. There have been wins against the soap operatic Knicks, Miami with Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal far from their superstar selves, the Cavaliers minus LeBron James, and the struggling 76ers.
This time the Celtics took advantage of the reigning Atlantic Division champions, whom they beat, 98-95, in overtime at Toronto Nov. 4. For the return engagement, the Raptors were without forwards Chris Bosh (groin) and Andrea Bargnani (knee), who represented 30.7 points per game.
The Celtics had a sluggish start on the road before beating Philadelphia Wednesday, 113-103. Back home, Boston was ready for the Raptors, finishing the first quarter with a 27-16 lead while getting 9 points from Pierce. The Celtics outscored the Raptors, 35-24, in the second quarter to take a 62-40 halftime lead.
"We just couldn't stop them tonight," said Raptors guard T.J. Ford. "It's just one of those nights. I don't know what to say. I don't have an answer for you guys."
The Celtics shot 52.8 percent in the first half and made 21 of a stunning 24 free throws. The Raptors shot 39 percent and had only six free throws. Four Celtics were in double digits by intermission, led by Garnett with 13 points.
"We wanted to play better tonight," Pierce said. "We didn't feel like we brought the defensive intensity last game."
Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "It's a great win for us, professionally. We've been struggling in first quarters and that's what we talked about before the game. Jumped on them early, which is important."
The big challenge for the Celtics entering the third quarter was to put away the Raptors as quickly as possible so the key players could rest for tonight's game at Chicago.
Sure enough, Boston opened the third with an 8-0 run, including 6 points from Garnett, and assumed command, 70-40, at the 9:58 mark on a Rajon Rondo (13 points) lay-in. Garnett exited with 3:46 left in the third and the Celtics up, 81-55. Pierce went to the bench for good with 36.8 seconds left in the third as the Celtics finished the quarter with a 91-55 lead.
"It was a perfect situation for us, knowing that we have to play tomorrow, that we have to travel," Allen said. "It worked out for the best."
Reserve guard Eddie House, who had 13 points, said: "It's good when the starters come out, play extremely hard, and build that lead for us so we can come out, give them rest, and the second unit can work on stuff that we need to work on."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com.