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CELTICS 88, RAPTORS 75

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Celtics take advantage of depleted Raptors to halt skid

Brandon Hunter has a comic book superhero quality in the way bulging muscles are stacked onto his 6-foot-6-inch frame. He is built to rebound. He has come to the Celtics' rescue on the glass and given the team a glimmer of hope for the future.

On a Friday night at the FleetCenter when there was little to admire on the court, Hunter positioning himself for rebound after rebound was a welcome sight. For a team that needed an injection of intensity, Hunter lately has been the perfect fit, even though teams that passed him by in the 2003 NBA draft thought he was undersized for a power forward.

Behind a career-high 16 rebounds from Hunter, Boston snapped a seven-game losing streak and defeated Toronto last night, 88-75. It was the Celtics' first home win since Jan. 23. With Hunter in the starting lineup and on the boards, the Celtics' most glaring weakness has turned into a strength. They outrebounded the Raptors, 54-32, an accomplishment that would have been unthinkable only a few games ago. The 54 rebounds represented a season high.

"[Rebounding] is my NBA skill and that's our weakness, so I try to go out and do it," said Hunter, who completed his first career double-double with 11 points and received the game ball from owner Wyc Grousbeck. "I think that me crashing the glass and clearing out the lane helps other guys get rebounds.

"It takes a little technique, a little anticipation. But you've just got to want to go get it. I was taught that early. Go get the ball."

With seven rebounds in the first quarter, Hunter helped set an aggressive tone. As a result, Boston established an early lead and, for the most part, expanded it throughout the game. The Celtics led by 26 points early in the third quarter before they struggled to make shots. The Raptors closed to within 13 at the end of the third and late in the fourth quarter, but got no closer. The visitors' roster was too decimated by injuries -- to Alvin Williams, Vince Carter, and Jalen Rose -- to make the game competitive.

The Raptors now have sole possession of the NBA's longest current losing streak at eight games.

With players thrust into roles they are unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with, the Raptors shot 34 percent, including 16 percent from 3-point range (3 for 19). It was a far cry from the Toronto team that hit a franchise-record 17 3-pointers against Boston Dec. 3 at the Air Canada Centre. The Celtics last night shot 45 percent, kept their 3-point attempts low (3 for 8), and outscored the Raptors, 34-24, in the paint.

"We defended the 3-point line, which was a major concern for us coming into the game," said Celtics interim coach John Carroll. "They had hurt us early in the season. Even with some of their guys out, [Donyell] Marshall was still there. And he's the guy that actually killed us in the first game from the 3-point line. I thought we did a pretty good job the whole game defending the 3-point line against Marshall [team-high 19 points, 1 for 2 from 3-point range] and their 3-point shooters."

Even before tipoff, ESPN knew it did not have a ratings winner. And nothing that transpired during the first half changed anyone's opinion. But it was marginally more entertaining for the FleetCenter crowd of 16,681 and the Celtics, who took a 57-37 lead into the break. The starting lineup of Paul Pierce, Chucky Atkins, Jiri Welsch, Mark Blount, and Hunter provided Boston with a strong start, which the Celtics were able to sustain during the second quarter with improved shooting.

A 14-3 run midway through the second allowed the Boston lead to reach 20 (48-28). Walter McCarty capped the run with a dunk. The advantage climbed to 23 moments later when Hunter found Blount for another dunk. Judging from the ease with which the Celtics scored in the first half, it was clear the Raptors would not provide much resistance the rest of the way.

Throughout their losing streak, the Celtics maintained all it would take to get back on track was one win. Now that the Celtics have that win, they are in good position to collect another against the Raptors tomorrow afternoon in Toronto.

"It's always good to win games," said Pierce (21 points). "One of these teams was going to get off a seven-game losing streak, so I'm glad it was us. We just wanted to get one, to get that monkey off our back. Now that we've got one, we can concentrate on getting two."

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