TORONTO — A young struggling team playing a couple of men down in the wake of a major trade, facing a squad of seasoned veterans: the excuses were practically prescripted for the Toronto Raptors.
But in the end, the Raptors didn't need them.
Andrea Bargnani scored 29 points and Amir Johnson connected on a pair of free throws with under three seconds on the clock Sunday to give the undermanned Raptors a 102-101 victory over the Boston Celtics, ending a string of eight straight losses against the star-studded Celtics.
"Our guys played real gutsy, we didn't give them anything real easy," said Raptors coach Jay Triano. "I just thought to a man, we made them work for everything. This is a (Celtics) team that has 96,000 points between them. We're sitting there with 12,000. They're a veteran team. But our guys competed."
Johnson finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, Sonny Weems had 16, Leandro Barbosa added 12 in his first appearance since missing six straight games with a shoulder injury, and Jose Calderon finished with 11. Reggie Evans had a game-high 16 boards to go with nine points for Toronto (5-9), which has won three consecutive games for the first time this season.
Nate Robinson scored 22 points, while Paul Pierce and Ray Allen added 19 apiece, and Kevin Garnett finished with 12 for the Celtics (9-4), who were playing without Rajon Rondo (hamstring).
The Raptors took an 82-75 lead into the final 12 minutes and looked ready to romp to their first win over the Celtics since Jan. 23, 2008. But it wasn't going to be easy. After a Barbosa basket with 9:03 to go, the Raptors' shooting went cold, and a pair of Allen three-pointers and a free throw by Glen Davis gave Boston a 98-94 lead with 3:26 left.
Triano called a timeout and told his young players simply to believe in themselves.
"I said 'We have a four-minute game against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, play a four-minute game, you guy have got to believe in yourselves,"' Triano said. "Three in a row now, I think they have to start believing they're a pretty good basketball team."
The Raptors missed 10 straight shots during that lull of nearly six minutes before Johnson's jumper with 2:46 left cut Boston's advantage to two points. The Celtics led 101-98 on two free throws by Davis with 21 seconds left before Weems scored on a driving layup with 19 on the clock to make it a one-point game.
Allen then coughed up the ball midcourt, which Calderon quickly scooped up and Johnson was fouled by Pierce with 2.7 on the clock. Then, after a dramatic flapping of his arms to get the Air Canada Centre crowd of 17,707 even more fired up, Johnson calmy stepped up and drained both free throws for the win, Toronto's first against the Celtics at home in seven tries.
"My swag was up definitely up at the end," Johnson said with a wide smile. "When I got fouled I knew already I was going to make the free throws because I was hitting them all game, so my confidence level — aka swag — was up."
The game came on the heels of Saturday's major trade that saw Toronto acquire sharp-shooting veteran Peja Stojakovic and young guard Jerryd Bayless from the New Orleans Hornets for point guard Jarrett Jack plus centre David Andersen and guard Marcus Banks.
But the newcomers won't be in uniform until Wednesday's game against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, leaving the Raptors down a couple of warm bodies and Calderon — who had shared point guard duties with Jack — to go it mainly alone in running the offence. Calderon had just two assists plus two turnovers in his 33 minutes, but was thrilled with his team's effort.
"It was a long time without beating Boston, and we were playing great and the fans were up there with us, and that's what we want to show every day," Calderon said. "Today, everybody was happy on the bench — even though there was not too many guys on the bench. On the court, everybody was on the same page. Great feeling."
Bargnani's big game was the latest in a string of strong performances by the traditionally-underachieving Italian big man, who was coming off 26- and 30-point performances earlier in the week.
"It feels good, it gives us all the confidence," Bargnani said. "Today we had just made the trade, we could have had a lot of excuses to lose this game, but everybody stepped up and played good."
Triano said rather than a distraction, Saturday's trade was more of a motivator for his players.
"It gives new life to the guys that are here, knowing it's a shorter bench, they're going to play more minutes, especially with two players not here," the coach said. "It's an opportunity for guys."
The Raptors outrebounded the Celtics 41-36. The Celtics, which had won in their previous six trips to the ACC, shot 48 per cent from the field to Toronto's 45 per cent.
"We didn't play great tonight obviously but we still had a chance to win the game, and we should have won the game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But we put ourselves in the position to lose the game and we did."
Robinson poured in 16 first-quarter points as the Celtics raced out to a 13-point lead before the game was eight minutes old. The Raptors managed to cut Boston's advantage to 31-23 to end the first.
Bargnani scored 13 points in the second as part of a Raptors rally, and they took their first lead of the game with six minutes to go in the half on a free throw by Evans. A three-pointer by Calderon stretched Toronto's lead to 58-53 with 1:12 left and Toronto took a 61-58 advantage into the dressing room at halftime.
The Raptors committed four turnovers in the first six minutes of the third quarter, and the Celtics took a one-point lead on a pair of free throws by Shaquille O'Neal with 5:18 left in the frame. But the Raptors made another run and Bargnani's running jumper with just over a minute to go put Toronto up by nine. The Raptors took an 82-75 lead into the fourth quarter.
NOTES: O'Neal fouled out with 7:32 left in the game. . . The Celtics were coming off a loss Friday at home to an Oklahoma City team that was missing Kevin Durant. . . The game was the first of four between the Atlantic Division opponents this season. . . The Raptors wrap up their three-game homestand Wednesday against the 76ers.