As Greivis Vasquez stumbled and fumbled his way through the final possession of last night's dispiriting loss in Cleveland, two things became obvious: First, that it was an entirely appropriate way for such a lousy game to end; and second, that any illusions the Raptors or their fans might have had about cruising into the playoffs were entirely unfounded.
The loss officially moved the Bulls past the Raptors for third place in the East and sent Brooklyn within a game-and-a-half of Toronto. With only 12 games left in the regular season, each game will take on an outsized importance. This is the blessing and the curse of following a playoff team: every game is important, but the stakes, and the nerves, rise together.
Tonight it's the first of two consecutive meetings with the Celtics, this one in Boston. The Celtics are bad, yes, but they're not nearly as pathetic as the Bucks or Sixers. If the Raptors come into this game with the same approach as they did against Cleveland, they will lose. Toronto has lost the opening quarter of its last four games. That's a problem, but doubly so because it puts undue pressure on the reserves, many of whom are on the court when the second quarter begins. Without Patrick Patterson, that means the Raptors are often playing from behind while relying on the likes of John Salmons and Tyler Hansbrough to generate offense.
(As an aside, how awful has Salmons looked of late? I try to avoid knee-jerk reactions and hyperbole whenever possible, but Salmons really doesn't resemble anything close to an NBA player anymore. He's like a bearded cadaver out there.)
Tonight will mark the first time the Raptors have seen the Celtics with Rajon Rondo, who has played in only 23 games since returning from an ACL injury. He's shooting the ball horribly (37.5% shooting, 29% from three, 65% from the line), but he's still more than capable of putting up Rondo-like numbers; a week ago he put up a 9-10-15 line in a win against Miami. He's a major wildcard and it will be interesting to see how Kyle Lowry, who had an excellent game in Cleveland, will attack Rondo.
The Raptors will also need to pay attention to Jared Sullinger, who morphed into 1988 Charles Barkley last time the two teams met, going for 25 points and 20 rebounds. He owned the Raptors' frontcourt, grabbing eight offensive rebounds, and it will be up to Hansbrough and Amir Johnson to keep him off the glass tonight.
Fans will also have to hope for bounce-back games from DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas, both of whom struggled in the loss against Cleveland. DeRozan couldn't get anything going offensively (5-16 shooting) and even missed four of the seven free throws he attempted. Valanciunas, on the other hand, only played 18 minutes and repeatedly got lost on pick-and-roll coverages and defensive rotations. It was a discouraging effort after back-to-back games of 13 rebounds for Valanciunas. In the past I've been critical of Casey for having too quick of a hook with Valanciunas, but last night was not one of those occasions. Valanciunas was awful, and he needs to be better tonight against the likes of Kris Humphries and Kelly Olynyk.
If I were a betting man (and to be honest, I sometimes am), I'd say the Raptors win tonight. Last night was the exception, not the rule. The Raptors have been great against inferior competition this year and I expect that will continue tonight, even in the back-to-back scenario. Let's hope it does, because if the Raptors trip up again and Brooklyn wins in Charlotte, that once-large Atlantic Division lead would be down to a half game. A half game!
The Raptors' regular season ends exactly three weeks from today. The margin for error continues to shrink. Tonight is the kind of game the Raptors must win if they want home-court advantage in the first round.