TORONTO - The Celtics' top-ranked defense made the Raptors' offense colder than it was outside the Air Canada Centre on this snowy day.
The Celtics improved to an NBA-best 20-2 with a 90-77 victory over the Raptors yesterday, tying the 1963-64 Celtics for the best start in franchise history after 22 games. The Celtics, who have won nine straight games (and four straight on the road), won the season series with their Atlantic Division rivals.
"That was a good win, a really good win for us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We knew we had beaten them twice and with the season series on the line we knew it was going to be an important game for them and us. And it was played that way.
"I think our guys played with just an amazing amount of energy. And I thought our focus was very good, which you have to have on the road, especially against a team like the Raptors."
The Celtics entered the game No. 1 in the NBA in points allowed per game (87.0), opponents' field-goal percentage (.414), and opponents' 3-point percentage (.301). The Raptors, however, entered yesterday as the NBA's best 3-point shooting team (.435) while averaging 98.8 points per game.
The Celtics' defense kept its smothering nature intact, limiting Toronto to a season low in points - 7 fewer than its previous low, registered Dec. 7 in Boston (112-84).
The Raptors also had a season low in field goals made (28), field goals attempted (72), assists (16), and turnover differential (-9). Moreover, the Raptors shot 38.9 percent from the field and had 18 turnovers (which led to 21 points).
"[Defense] is going to be our staple pretty much all year long," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. "We take pride on the defensive end and we try to establish it at the start of the game regardless of who is out there."
Said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett: "We know that defense is going to win games for us. Really, the defense fuels the offense. It's been working."
Pierce scored a game-high 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting and had six rebounds and four assists in 41 minutes. Garnett had 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists and guard Rajon Rondo scored 14 points and dished four assists. James Posey and Eddie House combined for 21 points and five 3-pointers off the bench.
Sunday games have definitely been a challenge to the Celtics this season.
The Celtics won an overtime matinee in Toronto Nov. 4, Boston suffered its first loss of the season at Orlando Nov. 18, and looked sluggish in a home matinee victory over the LeBron James-less Cavaliers Dec. 2.
"We talked about it [yesterday] morning at breakfast as a team and when we got over [to the arena]," Rivers said. "I told them, 'Early games, we have not gotten off to great starts guys.' I said, 'You got to come out of the box with great intensity.' And they did."
The Celtics jumped to a 27-17 lead by the end of the first quarter after limiting the Raptors to 23.5 percent shooting. Tony Allen's 3-pointer with 7:08 left in the half completed a 13-2 run and gave the Celtics a 40-19 lead.
The Celtics held the Raptors to 33.3 percent shooting in the second quarter in taking a 50-36 lead.
"It seems like they practice their [defensive] stuff a lot," said Raptors forward Chris Bosh, who had 17 points and 13 rebounds. "They were getting into the passing lanes. They were leaving any time we put them in rotation. They were leaving the furthest guy from the basket open and usually that is a tough pass to make."
Remember when that Celtics-Nets preseason game was canceled in Worcester Oct. 19 at halftime because of a wet floor? Memories of that contest came back after House noticed water leaking from a ceiling vent near the free-throw line in front of Boston's bench at halftime. This time the vent was sealed and the game continued after a 14-minute delay after halftime.
"I was a conspiracy theorist," Rivers said. "That break I was upset because we had some momentum on our side. Our guys still fought through that, so that was great."
The Celtics won their ninth straight third quarter, outscoring the Raptors, 21-18, en route to a 71-54 lead.
The Raptors opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run that sliced their deficit to 71-61 with 9:59 left, but the Celtics picked up their defense to hang on for the win.
"They are a better basketball team than we are right now," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "You have to give credit where credit is due."