For a team that’s had half of its losses come by at least 18 points, the Toronto Raptors’ turn from underachievers to winners of eight of nine certainly registers as an eye-opener.
The Raptors can avenge the lone loss in that span Sunday as they try to avoid dropping a seventh straight game to the visiting Boston Celtics, who have Paul Pierce(notes) and Rajon Rondo(notes) back after beating Toronto short-handed earlier this month.
The Raptors (19-18) hardly seemed interested in defending during an 11-17 start in which they allowed 108.6 points per game, and nine of those losses came by 18 points or more.
Since Dec. 18, though, Toronto has turned up its defense - allowing an average of 94.1 points - while operating an extremely efficient offense. The Raptors are shooting 50.4 percent and averaging 24.2 assists over their last nine games, both Eastern Conference bests.
Coach Jay Triano’s club also is winning tight games. Following five-point victories over San Antonio and Orlando to begin the week, Toronto rallied from a 13-point deficit in the second half Friday and won 108-106 in Philadelphia behind 29 points from Chris Bosh(notes).
The four-time All-Star made the go-ahead three-point play with 8.6 seconds left before the Raptors got another defensive stop to close it out.
“Really, what wins for us is defense,” point guard Jarrett Jack(notes), who’s averaged 13.5 points and 6.4 assists over his last eight games, told the NBA’s official Web site. “That last possession, we stepped up and got a big stop. We’ve been winning games lately with defense. Even though we scored 108 points, we got a big stop at the end.”
Pierce and Rondo returned to combine for 42 points in a 112-106 overtime win in Miami on Wednesday, but Boston blew a six-point halftime lead Friday and allowed Atlanta to score 54 second-half points in a 93-85 defeat.
“For the most part we’re a very focused team, but the little things is what we didn’t focus on in the third quarter,” said Pierce, who had 21 points and six steals. “Screens, defensive assignments, things like that. We have to be better on the road.”
While Pierce and Rondo have returned and Tony Allen could be back after sitting out Friday with flulike symptoms, Garnett remains sidelined with a hyperextended right knee.
Ray Allen’s production may be a big concern for the Raptors considering he’s averaged 23.2 points in his last 10 games against them, but Bosh and Bargnani may need to keep close watch of Kendrick Perkins(notes).
Perkins, averaging 15.5 points and 10.3 rebounds in his last four games, has averaged 16.0 points on 81.3 percent shooting in Boston’s two home wins over Toronto this season.
The Celtics are 11-2 when Perkins scores at least 14.
Toronto welcomed back Jose Calderon(notes) this week after he missed 12 of 13 games with a sore hip. Calderon, among the NBA’s assist-to-turnover ratio leaders (4.03) for a fourth straight season, had 24 points and 13 assists in a 114-112 win at Boston on Jan. 23, 2008 - Toronto’s lone victory in 11 games against the Celtics.