BOSTON - Depending on whom you ask, it was only a matter of time before the suddenly scorching Toronto Raptors experienced a setback, even a negligible one.
Conditioned to be skeptical following years of false hope, the team's loyal albeit exasperated fan base - or at least a segment of it - has been weary of the dreaded letdown game.
"It's the first stinker we've had," coach Dwane Casey said after his much-improved team was stunned by the lowly Celtics, falling 88-83 in Boston, a city in which the Raptors have gone winless over the last six years.
It was bound to happen eventually. The Raptors had been remarkably consistent in potential trap games, winning 10 of their last 11 contests against teams with losing records. Still, no one truly believed they would run the table with more than half the season left to be played, no one outside the locker room that is.
"No," Kyle Lowry said straight-faced when asked if he saw it coming. "We don't expect to have any letdowns."
It's just one game, one night, one of 82. In and of itself, the loss – however disappointing – shouldn't be a cause for concern. Even the best of the best get caught taking their foot off the gas but that doesn't provide solace to a team that's learning to demand more of themselves.
"They out-worked us tonight, which is rare for us," Lowry said, his team giving up 19 offensive boards to the Celtics, who had lost nine straight coming into the contest. "It sucks but we've got to learn from this. Everyone's pissed off right now, guys are mad and we should be."
The Raptors came out flat and could never quite find the groove they've been playing with for the better part of the last month. It was their most disheartening loss since a Dec. 18 overtime defeat at home to Charlotte and their worst effort since the Spurs ran them out of their own building eight days before that.
Leading the division, Toronto owned the best record in the Eastern Conference since its early-December trade. On the other end of the spectrum, the Celtics were quickly sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic, jettisoning their assists-leader to the West Coast hours before hosting the red-hot Raptors on Wednesday.
Missing Jordan Crawford, who was traded to Golden State earlier in the afternoon, and Rajon Rondo - expected to return from injury on Friday - the Celtics caught Toronto napping. The Raptors should, but probably wouldn't, appreciate the irony. Undermanned just hours after the Rudy Gay deal was consummated, the Raptors upset the heavily favoured Lakers in Los Angeles just over a month ago. Sometimes you're the windshield, on Wednesday they were the bug.
"It started on the boards," Casey said, as the Raptors were out-rebounded 20-7 in the third quarter, when the game began to slip away. "I was disappointed in our rebounding, we just got whipped in every way in the paint."
Forward Jared Sullinger grabbed eight of his 20 boards in the third, en route to a career performance. The Celtics' sophomore became the first player in the franchise's rich history to record at least 25 points, 20 rebounds and four assists in a game since Larry Bird accomplished that feat in 1987. Needless to say, Casey was not thrilled.
"None of our bigs did a man's job on the boards tonight (and) that's the ball game," he said. "Anytime you give up that many (second-chance) points, you can point to any big."
Jonas Valanciunas had a rough night on both ends of the floor, shooting just 1-of-7 in 23 minutes of action. Amir Johnson was held under 26 minutes, having to leave the game early in the third after tweaking his left ankle.
"They played harder than us," Johnson admitted. "We definitely should have come out and won this game."
Johnson said the injury did not occur on a specific play, instead it just started to feel sore, similar to what he felt before undergoing surgery on the same ankle in 2011.
"It was weird," said Johnson, who was able to return to the game in the fourth quarter after getting treatment in the locker room. "Once I got the tape on it, it felt fine, but it was weird."
Johnson's brief absence was costly, Patrick Patterson who had been playing at a high level was underwhelming and Tyler Hansbrough - sitting out his seventh straight, also with a sprained left ankle - was missed. For the first time in over a month Steve Novak was asked to log meaningful minutes as Toronto played catch-up in the fourth.
Although the Raptors knocked down 11 threes on 24 attempts from beyond the arch - their fourth straight game with 11 or more treys - both teams shot under 40 per cent from the field. While Boston connected on 26 of their 36 attempts from the line, the Raptors missed a devastating 13 free throws (on 25 attempts), including several down the stretch.
Down by as many as 18 in the second half, the Raptors managed to fight back and cut their deficit to three with under a minute remaining. Missed free throws and poor late-game execution was their undoing.
"We have to use this as a reminder," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Raptors with 23 points. "It doesn't matter who we are playing. If it's a team we are better than, whatever, teams are still going to go out there and play hard. Boston didn't give up at all. They kept the pressure going on us. They played hard tonight."