Celtics survive wild finish to beat Raptors: 7 takeaways

Celtics

Playing short-handed, the Celtics once again showed their multi-faceted potential.

Toronto Raptors’ Chris Boucher (25) fouls Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown (7) as he shoots to score during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 29, 2023, in Boston. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

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The Celtics were short-handed on the second night of a back-to-back on Friday, but they pulled out a hard-fought 120-118 victory over the Raptors to stay perfect at home.

Here are the takeaways.

1. The Celtics survived a wild finish.

Going into the fourth quarter, the Celtics held a 13-point advantage, but with Jaylen Brown on the bench (and with Jayson Tatum, Kristaps Porzingis and Al Horford all sidelined for maladies that are likely euphemisms for “rest”), the Raptors needed fewer than four minutes to go on an 18-3 run and take a 104-102 lead.

The next eight minutes went back and forth. The Celtics took a three-point lead on a layup by Derrick White with just over a minute remaining, but Scottie Barnes — who scored 30 points overall — buried a 3-pointer. The Celtics took a two-point lead on a lob from Brown to Luke Kornet, but Dennis Schröder was fouled driving to the hoop and had a chance to tie.

That’s when things started to get weird. Schröder went 1-for-2. The Celtics inbounded the ball (barely) and Pascal Siakam fouled Jrue Holiday (barely). With a chance to put the Celtics up by three, Holiday went 1-for-2, giving the Raptors life. Barnes then beat Holiday off the dribble, but Oshae Brissett made a nice defensive play to force a miss. The Celtics got the ball to Holiday, and he went back to the free-throw line … where he went 1-for-2 again.

The Raptors missed a half-court heave at the buzzer, which should have been the end of things, but the game wasn’t quite done being weird. Officials summoned everyone back onto the court, conferred, and determined that White fouled Siakam on the rebound after Holiday’s missed free throw. That sent Siakam to the line with a chance to make the first and miss the second, which gave the Raptors a puncher’s chance to force overtime.

“I didn’t think he called it,” White said. “The game ended and then he looked and he was like, ‘No, no. Foul.’”

Siakam made and missed the requisite free throws, but Kornet tipped the rebound away, and the game — finally — was over. The Celtics remained perfect at home.

2. Jaylen Brown got off to a great start, scoring 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting in the first quarter including 4-for-4 shooting from behind the arc. Brown fired up a heat-check triple and started back down the court before it swished through.

Brown’s final totals didn’t quite match his fiery start, but he recorded 31 points on 11-for-16 shooting, as well as 10 rebounds and six assists. He coughed up seven of the Celtics’ 16 turnovers, but his performance in a 1A role was once again eye-opening thanks to his passing: He was unselfish in big moments, including his big drive-and-lob to Kornet late, as well as a nice dish to Payton Pritchard at the end of his hot first quarter, which resulted in a 3-pointer and a 15-point lead.

“At the start of the year, I don’t think the coaching staff was looking at me to be more of a playmaker,” Brown said. “But any time I get an opportunity and I get better, I wanted to prove and earn everybody’s trust and respect. So I’ve really worked in the offseason on developing my craft. I take my game serious, and just keep coming back, getting better every year. I’m going to just keep doing that.”

3. White’s All-Star case gained some steam if you don’t look at his shooting numbers. He made a brutally difficult 3-pointer at a crucial moment in the fourth quarter with the shot clock winding down, and he scored four big points late. His final line — 21 points, five rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks — shines.

His shooting numbers dim the shine a bit: 5-for-19 from the floor, 2-for-10 from behind the arc. Still, he took and made nine free throws and his clutch scoring more than made up the difference.

“Today I missed a lot but all of them felt really good,” White said. “So just continue to trust that, and just continue to stay aggressive in there. They’re always telling me to stay aggressive, so that helps a lot.”

4. Joe Mazzulla credited a Horns set (two players up near the top of the key and a ball-handler with an option to run through a screen in either direction) for creating indecision in the Raptors’ switching defensive scheme and helping the Celtics pull away down the stretch. The trio involved in the set: Jrue Holiday, White and Brown.

“We went to the Horns small action, and that’s when we were able to create indecision, separation, and create 2-on-1s,” Mazzulla said.

That look could come in handy later in the year — the trio of Holiday, Brown and White is versatile and talented, and any mismatch they create would give the Celtics’ offense a promising set of options.

5. The Celtics committed 10 of their 16 turnovers in the second half and were incredibly sloppy at the start of the fourth quarter, spotting the Raptors their big run.

Still, Mazzulla liked that the Celtics were able to pull out of their nosedive, which does seem to be a common theme for this year’s team.

“We let go of the rope a little bit and they went on an 18-3 run,” Mazzulla said. “All that stuff was stuff that you’d be willing to give up at times — Schröeder threes, [Jalen] McDaniel threes — but it’s the and-ones, it’s the transition, and I thought our offense bogged us down, and those 16 turnovers is kind of what kept them in on that. But the poise to be able to just execute is kind of what we’re looking to build.”

6. Luke Kornet returned to the Celtics’ lineup for the first time since Dec. 12 after dealing with an adductor injury. In his return, he poured in a season-high 20 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out three assists and blocked three shots.

After the game, Kornet offered nearly 10 minutes of thoughts on life in the NBA as a role player whose minutes are semi-regular.

“I’m sure come San Antonio, if [Porzingis] and Al are back playin, and JT then it’s like, ‘All right, whatever,’” Kornet said. “Like let’s hope we go out and we win and I’m fulfilling my role for that day, and I think there’s a lot of peace in just doing what you’re told in a weird kind of a way, and knowing what your job is and trying to do that thing well and not worrying about things that you really can’t control.”

“There’s going to be a lot of guys who aren’t playing on any given night and you kind of have the choice to be able to sort of like offer your work to the good of the group or just kind of close in on yourself,” Kornet added. “To me, it seems like the better solution is pretty clear in that.”

The Celtics appreciate Kornet’s attitude.

“Luke is the ultimate teammate,” Brown said. “Just a great locker room guy, gets along with everybody. He’s funny, so he kind of just uplifts everybody, even in moments where we don’t want to laugh. And then on the court, he’s just old reliable.”

7. The Celtics will now travel to San Antonio for a matchup against Victor Wembenyama and the Spurs on New Year’s Eve.

Brown, who missed Thursday’s game against the Detroit Pistons with a back contusion, said he expects to be available.

“Today felt a little stiff, but as I got on the court and I got moving, it’s kind of something that went away,” Brown said. “So I’m feeling all right. I’m getting ready for two big games coming up, San Antonio and OKC. Looking forward to the challenge.”