BOSTON — The Toronto Raptors left TD Garden after Wednesday night’s 99-90 victory over the Boston Celtics knowing a loss by the New York Knicks out west would mean its first playoff berth since 2008.
But more importantly, these Raptors, who were supposed to jockey for lottery position this season, also moved 2 1/2 games ahead of the Brooklyn Nets, overtime losers at Charlotte, for the Atlantic Division lead.
“I said that before the game; we take care of our business tonight — we can’t count on nobody else but we can take care of our business, our part,” guard Kyle Lowry said after his 23 points and nine rebounds helped the Raptors to only their third win in the last seven games.
“I ain’t gonna lie — I think everyone’s rooting for that Western Conference team over there.”
That Western Conference team was the Sacramento Kings, and there’s a connection there.
Back in December, the Raptors sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento in a seven-player trade that was viewed as a form of “tanking” by Toronto. The Raptors, with Canadian-born Andrew Wiggins out there as a potential draft target, were said to be sacrificing the season.
It did not happen. This team, with four ex-Kings helping, is 40-31 and entered play Wednesday, after a tough loss to Cleveland on Tuesday, as the No. 4 seed in the playoff chase.
“I haven’t won here since I’ve been a Raptor,” guard DeMar DeRozen, who had 20 points and seven rebounds, said. “It feels good just to get that (the playoff spot) off your shoulders. But we gotta keep moving forward.”
Asked what it would mean to the franchise to make the playoffs, DeRozen said, “Not just the franchise, but the whole city of Toronto and Canada, really. With me being here five years and seeing how passionate the fans are, it definitely means a lot because we feed off them.”
The Raptors survived a fourth-quarter assault by Boston forward Jared Sullinger to escape and send the Celtics to their seventh loss in the last eight games, in the opener of a home-and-home that ends in Toronto on Friday night.
Sullinger, who had 25 points and 20 rebounds the last time the teams met, was quiet for three quarters Wednesday night. But he exploded for 19 points in a 6:46 span of the finale to finish with 26 points and eight rebounds. He did not score over the final 3:41.
DeRozen and Lowry kept their team from surrendering all of the 15-point lead the Raptors had at the end of the third quarter. The Celtics got as close as three down, closing to 93-90 with 1:49 left. But Lowry hit a tough 3-pointer to give the Raptors a six-point lead with 1:38 remaining and when forward Terrence Ross followed with another, the fans scrambled for the exits.
The Raptors went 11-for-23 from behind the arc and 16-for-18 from the foul line.
Ross, who was 5-for-9 on threes, finished with 24 points. Lowry went 4-for-8 from 3-point land. Center Jonas Valanciunas chipped in with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Guard Avery Bradley had 16 points and guard Chris Johnson 13 for the Celtics (23-48).
Boston point guard Rajon Rondo left the game after getting hit near the eye in the third quarter. He returned in the fourth quarter with nine stitches on the upper bridge of his nose. Rondo finished with 15 assists and nine points, but did not score after returning.
“I saw that Rondo went down so I saw that we needed production so I took it upon myself and tried to get the best shots possible,” said Sullinger, who nailed three 3-pointers in a 1:38 span
The Raptors won this game because of big finishes to each quarter — 21-9 in the first, 15-6 in the second, 9-2 in the third and 6-0 in the fourth.
NOTES: Celtics PG Rajon Rondo, who still is not playing on back-to-back nights and reportedly will not for the rest of the season after coming back from knee surgery, will serve as a color commentator during the first quarter of Monday’s game at Chicago. “It should be good insight,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens. “He knows he can’t give too much insight. We’ll go over all the rules on Monday in pretty good detail.” … After the back-end of the current home-and home, the Celtics do the same with the Bulls, Sunday night in Boston. … Toronto F Patrick Patterson, out since suffering an elbow injury three weeks ago, was cleared for practice contact. “There’s no timetable for game. If we can get him up and going as soon as possible that’s the key,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. … The Celtics held a pre-game moment of silence honoring two firefighters killed Wednesday in a blaze not far from TD Garden.
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