Defence at loss without O'Neal

MIKE GANTER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

The biggest cheer of the afternoon was the first and about the last.

It came as the Raptors were warming up for their game against Boston. Jermaine O'Neal emerged from the tunnel just behind the Raptors bench to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.

Less than 48 hours earlier, O'Neal's immediate future was in doubt. His surgically repaired left knee buckled as he came down during Friday's game against New Jersey. The first thought as he rolled around the floor in pain was that a long absence from the court was in his future.

His decision to play yesterday was gutsy if nothing else, but watching him wince every time he came down from a jumper spoke volumes about his inability to contribute in his accustomed way.

"It's still a fresh injury," O'Neal said afterwards. "Most injuries you have to give 48 hours to get ready and I basically had one day. I think by Wednesday I'll be good to go."

That is about the only positive to come out of a long afternoon of stunningly poor basketball by the Raptors, who all of a sudden can't seem to play defence.

O'Neal finally called it a day 4:43 into the second quarter, after he took one more spill and barely managed to get back to his feet.

When O'Neal left the game, the Raptors were down by six, having clawed their way back from an early 16-point deficit.

Without O'Neal combining with Chris Bosh to form that last line of defence under the basket, the Celtics had a field day the rest of the way.

They shot a ridiculous 61.6% from the floor on their way to a 118-103 cakewalk over the Raptors.

That's two consecutive defensive duds in a row for the Raptors, and it can't be a coincidence that O'Neal has missed huge chunks of both.

O'Neal, when he's healthy, is the Raptors' security blanket. When opponents drive past players on the perimeter, he is there to bail them out.

There was one sequence midway through the third when Rajon Rondo blew past Jose Calderon on successive occasions as the Celtics' lead continued to grow and the boo birds in the crowd started to find their lungs.

In fairness, Calderon is still dealing with the remnants of a strained right hamstring from a few games ago, in addition to a twisted ankle that is still giving him problems. But on the ensuing timeout, Calderon walked back to the bench with a bewildered look on his face, his arms spread wide.

He was asked afterwards if that was a "This guy is so quick I can't stay with him" gesture or something else.

Calderon said it was definitely something else and then pointed out for good measure that he had done the same thing to Rondo on an earlier play.

'WHAT'S GOING ON?'

But what the spread arms were saying was: "What's going on with our defence?"

"It was because we were trying to play some defence and we didn't know what to do in the help position, so it was me wondering: 'What's going on?' " Calderon said. "We changed it up, made the adjustment and that's it. It happens."

Calderon is not the type of player to throw a teammate under the bus so it was pointless asking for names.

The difference when O'Neal is out of the game is that those defensive letdowns turn into uncontested layups.

What's clear is that even with the expected return of O'Neal on Wednesday, the Raptors defence is going to need some major fine-tuning over the next couple of days.

Giving up 111 points to the Nets in regulation, with another 118 to the Celtics yesterday makes that a no-brainer. Maybe by Wednesday the fans will have something to cheer about after the opening tip.


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