Celtics rapped by Toronto

February 6, 1999

 Celtics rapped by Toronto

 There were unmistakable sounds echoing off the FleetCenter's parquet last night. They were not groans. They were not moans. They were not wails. They were boos. "I heard them," Ron Mercer said, "but I wasn't sure if they were for us or Dee Brown." Well, if you're keeping score, the boos for current Celtics outnumbered the boos for ex-Celtics by a rate of, say, 1,000-1. In other words, it was a rout, much like the Celtics' Opening Night loss to the Raptors. The final was 103-92. And if you think that's bad, consider that many of the 17,289 fans here began to leave with five minutes remaining in the game. That's when Doug Christie (27 points) made a 3-pointer that put the Raptors ahead by 17, 97-80.

 But as the Celtics understand, the final score didn't matter to most fans. They could have lost by a point in double overtime and it still would have been a loss to . . . Toronto. It's the same Raptor team that lost 66 games last season. More recently, it's the same Raptor team that was destroyed by the Celtics twice in the exhibition season. So a loss by any means was unacceptable to many viewers. "The expectations are high, and that's good," Antoine Walker said. "That's good pressure to have. But people shouldn't get too down about this. We'll be back and we'll be OK." They were far from OK last night. Problems? They had several. You could point to their 43 percent shooting from the field, but Toronto was even worse (39 percent), so that wasn't the main issue. Rebounding was. So was ballhandling.

"I just think they physically beat the hell out of us," Rick Pitino said. The coach was right. He warned his team that Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley are veteran rebounders who have been practicing their craft for more than a decade. They are shells of the players they used to be, but they still seem to enjoy jostling in the pivot. Last night the Celtics made Willis look like a young Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Toronto center had 28 points and 16 rebounds. Oakley finished with nine rebounds. Willis and Oakley had more rebounds between them (25) than the entire Celtics starting lineup (22). Overall, the Celtics were outrebounded by 14. Size has been a concern for the Celtics for two seasons, so the fact that they were outrebounded is not a stunner. But the box score shows that the Raptors had more steals and forced more turnovers than the Celtics. Certain stats, such as steals and deflections, are supposed to be the signatures of PitinoBall, not (Raptors coach) ButchCarterBall. "You know what? They played like we usually play," Walker said. "They got easy baskets and forced a lot of steals."

 The Celtics did get 21 points from Walker, but only 4 in the second half. When Walker touched the ball after halftime, it was as if the Raptors were programmed to tell themselves, "Get him; get him." The Celtics' leading scorer was often double-teamed and couldn't take advantage; he had one assist. There was never a point where the Celtics appeared to be making a run. They played a drab first quarter, scoring 24 points and shooting 39 percent. They trailed at halftime. They trailed by 11 after three and could only draw within 7 in the fourth quarter. After the game, Pitino said he thought the team had listened to Red Auerbach's pregame words. The legendary coach told them to forget about statistics and concentrate on making the extra pass. That may happen for the Celtics, but it didn't happen last night. Rookie Paul Pierce, playing in front of several friends and family members, had a solid debut.

The 6-foot-7-inch forward had 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. He also had four blocked shots, picking up two in 10 seconds. But Mercer and Kenny Anderson combined for only 12 points. And, most important, when the team needed a rebound, it couldn't get it. At the end of the game, a fan yelled, "Pitino! No excuse." Pitino has been known to engage fans in sideline conversation, but if the coach had heard that fan's complaint, he probably wouldn't have disagreed.

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