Irving, back on the court after missing Boston’s last three games with a quad bruise, finished with 17 points over 22 minutes but was a team-worst minus-22 in plus/minus as the Celtics endured a 111-91 loss at the Air Canada Centre.
Boston’s net rating with Irving on the floor was a cringeworthy minus-50.3, contrasting a meager 74.9 offensive rating with a 125.2 defensive rating. The Raptors, aided by their potent second unit, cranked up the intensity in the second quarter and ran away from Boston while building a 21-point halftime advantage.
“I think the biggest surprise was myself,” said Irving. “I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ll probably harp on myself more than I will on our team effort. Even our young guys coming in, they still gave the effort that we needed. As a one of the veterans on this team, I just got to be better. This one is just mainly on me, kind of just taking responsibility and trying to be better as we go forward.”
Asked about Irving’s performance in his first game back, Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted that no one on Boston’s roster had their finest performance and expressed disappointment that his team turned in a rare dud against a top rival.
“We got our butts kicked by a really good team who physically overwhelmed us from a speed and physicality standpoint,” said Stevens. “We need to do a better job. So I’m not gonna – the one thing you never do as a coach is you never chalk it up to ‘one of those nights.’ Maybe you do at the end of the year when you look back on the whole season, but … first of all, it takes credit away from the team that did what they did to you. And then, secondly, we have to compete at a better level physically. That’s the part that really stood out to me.”
Stevens heaped praise on a Toronto bench that helped create the early separation. He pointed out how Boston “missed the boat big time” in being urgent early in defending Kyle Lowry. And Stevens stressed that, despite his team’s propensity for rallying from early holes, his team just didn’t look properly engaged from the jump.
“I thought you could see it with our first six minutes of the game,” said Stevens. “We gave up 15 points in the first five minutes. We looked slow. We looked like we weren’t ready to react to their speed or their physicality and I think that was probably the case the whole night. And credit them. They played great.”
Added a disappointed Stevens: “I just didn’t think we were ready to physically compete, for whatever reason.”
The Celtics had won five of their previous six games despite enduring a full week without Irving. Their lone loss in that stretch came at Golden State in a game that Stevens suggested was maybe Boston’s best performance of the season despite the result.
The return of both Irving and Marcus Morris, who missed two games with a bruised backside after a scary fall from the rim last week against the Knicks, was supposed to give Boston another jolt. Instead, the Celtics turned in one of their poorest performances of the season.
“The effort on both ends, that’s the responsibility that I have as one of the leaders on this team of integrating myself as best I can and I didn’t do a good job of that tonight,” said Irving. “And it kinda led to some of our mistakes tonight. … You have to give credit where credit is due, but we made a lot of mistakes on our end as well, which they capitalized on, [they] got every 50/50 basketball, and they treated it as a high-tempo, high-intense game.
“We got hit tonight. We get hit early and they consistently hit you and they buried us, which a good team should do.”
With Boston starting a pre All-Star stretch that includes games against four possible top East playoff squads – Washington, Indiana, and Cleveland loom on the schedule – Irving said the Celtics must quickly move on but can’t simply dismiss the loss.
“Obviously want to learn as much as you can from games like this; keep it in the back of your mind. I know I will,” said Irving. “And I hope a few of our guys will as well. Going against a great team was great for us. We failed at it. Now we get another chance to play another NBA game on Thursday [against the Wizards].”
Boston could have at least one new face for Thursday’s game if they finalize the signing of free-agent center Greg Monroe. The Celtics are waiting to sign Monroe to their final roster spot to provide additional flexibility in advance of Thursday’s trade deadline while exploring other possible additions.
Regardless of how Boston’s roster looks, the Celtics will have to play better the next time they see Toronto if they desire to emerge with the top spot in the East. The Celtics and Raptors play two more games over the final two weeks of the regular season.
“They played a good game, that’s all I can say,” said Morris. “We’ll see them again.”