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Raptors collapse down stretch, lose to Celtics 109-104

This was an evening of highs and lows.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight was an opportunity for the Raptors to erase the shortcomings of the past month. With a win in Boston, the Raptors would have moved back in to second in the East, and clinched the ever-important season-series tiebreaker.

Instead, Raptors fans are stuck looking up at a 1.5 game deficit in the standings, and dealing with that residual stomach pit that only a close loss can leave behind.

The evening had joyous potential early. Fighting through an infuriatingly stingy whistle against both teams, the Raptors found success in the first half via some unlikely contributions. With Lucas Nogueira and Jonas Valanciunas both carrying foul trouble, the high-IQ front court pair of Jared Sullinger and Jakob Poeltl helped weather the storm. Poeltl with defensive wits and well-time offensive put backs, Sullinger with a rediscovery of the mid-range game he was promised to bring when he signed in the summer. Sullinger chipped in 11 of his 13 points while Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell also reached double figures in the opening half. With a 62-51 halftime lead built on balanced scoring and some rabid defensive intensity, the Raptors seemed primed for a narrative-altering victory.

Cracks began to show in the third. Toronto, on the second night of a back-to-back, lost some its defensive edge. What were once crisp defensive rotations turned into breakdowns and open Celtics threes. A short stint for the maligned Sullinger-Valanciunas front court pairing coincided with a modest widdling of the Raptors lead from 13 to eight in the final 1:52 of the third quarter.

Isaiah Thomas had already help up the otherwise struggling Celtics offense through three. He entered the fourth — a quarter he has set ablaze this year — with 25 points already to his name. In the final 12 minutes, Thomas proceeded to add the Raptors to the list of teams he’s ethered en route to wins this season.

An all-too-common problem for Toronto surfaced once again. As Thomas piled up buckets, the Raptors couldn’t find a one-on-one solution for him. Kyle Lowry, in fairness, was a little preoccupied providing the only offense Toronto could cobble together late. Still, he couldn’t stay with Thomas either on or off the ball. Neither could Cory Joseph. Neither could Norman Powell when he was mercifully given the assignment in the final few minutes.

This is what Thomas does. The box score said he missed four of his 10 fourth quarter shots, but that seems like an alt-fact. The dude was even hitting 28-foot throwaway shots after getting intentionally fouled in the final minute.

In order to counteract Thomas’ wizardry, you have to expose him as the defensive liability he is. Usually the Raptors are able to do that. In previous match-ups, Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have taken turns backing him down in the post or leaving him stapled to a screener. When there’s nowhere for Thomas to hide, you have a prayer of matching him shot for shot.

DeRozan wasn’t available to work 1-2 pick-and-rolls with Lowry on Wednesday night. Because Lowry is the best guard in the conference, he was almost able to outgun Thomas on his own. But Marcus Smart’s defense is oppressive. He honed in on Lowry; Thomas was free to hang out beside Norman Powell. As Smart powered through Lucas Nogueira screens and maintained close proximity with Lowry, the solo engine of the Raptors’ offense was forced into trying heroic, contested triples. Some of them fell, because Lowry is a magician, but a few too many fell short. With Powell incapable of reliable secondary playmaking (he had 4 turnovers on the night), Thomas wasn’t tested. And with the only three made by the trio of Powell, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross coming with the game already in hand (they were 1-of-10 combined), the non-Lowry faction of the team couldn’t offer enough production to equal Thomas.

Despite the late breakdowns, gloom and panic shouldn’t dominate the discourse following this game.

A fully-assembled Raptors team still throws a host of match-up problems Boston’s way. DeRozan and Lowry working in concert pushes the Celtics to make sacrifices, and both All-Stars seem to shine when they’re matched up with their division rivals in green. (Perhaps because they know they won’t have a serious shot-blocking threat waiting for them on their unabated drives to the rim.)

Casey has an assortment of front court combinations and small-ball looks he can turn to when Brad Stevens opts to go either big or small as well. Boston isn’t Cleveland; the Raptors have the pieces to be both active and reactive in the coaching chess game.

Wednesday’s loss (and Jaylen Brown’s unnecessary beef with a Kyle Lowry foul) also introduced some animosity to the fan experience. It’s new, and it leads to hypertension, but at this point in the Raptors’ trajectory, it should be welcomed. Toronto’s success over the last year and a half has mostly come uncontested from above or below. Existing as a clear-cut runner up is enjoyable and stress-free. Having a burgeoning rival that might just be better than you is fun in a much more blood-boiling, fist-waving kind of way.

This wasn’t the season-turning win it had the potential to be. But maybe a loss to the new darlings of the sub-LeBron East will serve as a wake-up call to the stumbling Raptors anyway. There’s no room for complacency anymore.