Celtics outlast Raptors in physical slugfest

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Raptors head coach Nick Nurse talked recently about seeing his team make some steady progress in the areas of their game that have been lacking.

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Sunday night’s return home to the Scotiabank Arena after a lengthy and humbling road trip may not have come with the result the team had hoped for, but from a defensive standpoint, it was at least a start.

Coming off a road trip that saw their defensive acumen not just challenged but thrown in the shredder, the focus was re-establishing a defensive mindset and actually making teams a little hesitant to even play in Toronto. The feeling from veterans on the team was that the physicality and some toughness had been lacking and it was time to ramp that up again.

On that front, at least, consider it mission accomplished.

“I think it just comes down to manning up and guarding your yard, taking pride in the defensive end of the floor, staying locked in the game plan,” Fred VanVleet said recently of the defensive letdown. “The coaching staff, they give us great game plans every game, we’re prepared, and it’s up to the players to go out there and execute that, to be locked in and we haven’t done that the last however many games, 10 games? Our defence has taken a slide so we’ve go to find a way to get that back but I’m confident that we will.”

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For three and a half quarters, VanVleet and Nurse got what they were looking for but extensive foul trouble and some key absences didn’t allow them to sustain it as Boston pulled away down the stretch for a 109-97 win.

With the loss, the Raptors fell to 9-12.

The visiting Celtics and Raptors traded blows for the better part of three and a half quarters with the game very much up for grabs before a 9-0 run by the Celtics in the middle portion of the fourth gave the Celtics the extended breathing room they would need to close this one out.

The Celtics owned the final six minutes but this was a dogfight for the better part of the night.

Nurse saw the compete he needed, if not the finish.

“I thought the guys played really hard,” he said. “Thought it was a good effort, just didn’t bounce our way.”

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The Raptors came into this one undermanned as they have been for the better part of the season.

Still out were both OG Anunoby and Khem Birch and they were joined by Gary Trent Jr., who bruised his left calf in the loss in Indianapolis on Friday.

The absences saw Nick Nurse and his staff turn to some of those lesser-used bodies on the Raptors bench like Isaac Bonga and Justin Champagnie.

The fresh legs along with the return of Yuta Watanabe brought some extra energy but in terms of finish, the Raptors didn’t have much success.

Left out in all the changes was Chris Boucher, who did not see the floor.

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“I just wanted to see if we could get some good, hard play out of other guys and take a look at them,” Nurse said.

Asked specifically what Boucher needs to do to get back in the rotation, Nurse didn’t mince words.

“First, he’s got to handle it like a pro,” Nurse said of the benching. “When he gets his chance he has to be a little more consistent. I mean, he’s not the only one that needs to come off the bench and play more consistently. That doesn’t mean scoring or anything. That’s just engaged and playing hard and rebounding and blocking shots and things he should be able to bring most nights.”

The final seven minutes of the fourth quarter were easily the worst of the game by the Raptors, who at that point were deep in foul trouble.

The Celtics went to the free-throw line for 31 attempts in the game compared to the 16 Toronto received.

mganter@postmedia.com

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