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The young Raptors had reason to celebrate Sunday afternoon, and it had nothing to do with Santa coming to town

Wow, what a game.

If this Raptors team has been good for one thing through three and a half weeks of the season, it’s been thrilling ball games, win or lose.

Even though the Celtics were without Rondo, the Raptors had to be big underdogs this afternoon, especially due to the fact that they were dealing with a thin lineup after yesterday’s trade.

The crowd of nearly 18 000 in the Air Canada Centre was quiet for most of the first half, but like the team they were rooting for today, the fans picked up the intensity when it mattered the most. The ACC was electric for the fourth quarter.

The Raptors came out of the gates with good energy, but they looked embarrassingly over-matched for most of the first quarter. The swarming Celtics’ defence bottled up the Raptors on one end, while Nate Robinson and Boston’s offence ate up the Raps on the other end.

You are forgiven if you looked up at the score midway through the first quarter, saw the Celtics up 21-8, and thought about ditching the ACC for the Santa Claus Parade.

Then in come the Raptors reserves, and the game changes instantly.

Amir Johnson and Leandro Barbosa started the rally, and Andrea Bargnani decided he was going to impose his will on the Celtics’ bigs. Yes, you read that last part correctly.

Andrea may have showed more growth and maturity as an NBA-er today than he had in his first four years. Despite being beaten down by Kevin Garnett in the first few minutes and missing his first four shots (including two free throws), Bargnani began to demand the ball on almost every possession, working inside and out, laying the foundation for a 29-point game.

It was this aggressive play from Bargnani that put every Celtics big that tried to guard him in early foul trouble. In the third quarter, Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal and Glen Davis all had four fouls, thanks to “Il Mago.”

The Raptors turned an early 13-point deficit into a 12-point lead by the third quarter, and took a nine-point lead into the game’s final five minutes.

But you knew, some way, some how, a Celtics run was coming.

A couple of Paul Pierce buckets here, a couple of horrible Raptors possessions there, and then a couple of Ray Allen threes had the Celtics up four with less than two minutes remaining.

It was an incredibly quick swing that took some energy out of the building, and you would assume, would have taken some wind out of the home team.

And then, as they have for the last three games, the Raptors found a way to get some late stops and force turnovers to come away with a win.

With Boston up one, the Celtics in-bounded, and everyone assumed Ray Allen would be fouled. The Celtics coughed it up, Jose Calderon recovered, and although they had a timeout to use, the Raptors ran around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Don’t ask how, but it worked. Amir Johnson was fouled, knocked down two clutch free throws (Amir’s improved free throw shooting has been a story in itself this season), and Paul Pierce missed a jumper at the other end.

Game over. The Raptors did what they couldn’t do with Chris Bosh in the lineup; beat the Celtics’ Big Three at the ACC.

There are a few things I wanted to point out before I end this post.

First, credit Barbosa for having such a profound impact in a big game, despite not playing for a couple of weeks.

Second, Amir Johnson and Reggie Evans combined for 26 points and 27 rebounds today. I’d say the Raptors are a tough team to beat when that happens.

Third, I don’t want to imply that Bargnani is better than Bosh, because that’s just not true. But, Andrea attacked KG more today than I ever saw Bosh attack him in a Raptors-Celtics matchup. Chris always seemed to shy away from battling his idol. Andrea simply went about his business as usual.

And lastly, I have criticized Jay Triano over the last couple of years, and probably will again this season. But I have to give credit to Jay for getting the absolute best out of this team for 12 or 13 out of 14 games so far this season. That’s harder to do than it should be with NBA athletes.

Raptors Player of the Game: Amir Johnson -24 Min, 17 Pts, 4-5 FG, 9-9 FT, 11 Reb, 2 Ast, 1 Blk

Celtics Player of the Game: Nate Robinson – 35 Min, 22 Pts, 8-14 FG, 3-6 3Pt, 3-4 FT, 4 Reb, 2 Ast