SACRAMENTO -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers knows the first game of an extended West Coast swing can set the tone for the entire trip. Boston can only hope its 119-105 loss to the Kings last night does not set a pattern for the remaining four games on the itinerary. Otherwise, the trip might seem a lot longer than the scheduled nine days.
The Celtics squandered a 20-point second-quarter advantage at ARCO Arena, only to watch Sacramento establish a similarly large lead in the fourth on its way to victory. The Celtics can only hope their travels conclude better than they started.
"Great first half, bad second half, I guess should sum it up," said Rivers. "The number that stands out to me is [the Kings' season-high] 35 assists to 12. In the first half, we moved the ball, we shared the ball. We did a great job playing together as a team. Then, in the second half, we tried to each win it by ourselves. The ball never moved. [The first half] showed what we could be, but we just don't stay that way a whole game yet. We just can't do it. We live and we learn." It was Boston's ninth straight loss at ARCO Arena and ended a three-game winning streak.
During much of the first half, the Celtics appeared well on their way to recording their first road victory against the Kings since Feb. 16, 1996. But Sacramento has owned Eastern Conference opponents on its home floor and last night proved no exception.
A 20-footer by Mike Bibby with 7:42 left in the third gave Sacramento its first lead (71-69). The basket was part of a decisive 36-10 run by the Kings that covered most of the third.
During the quarter, Sacramento shot 67 percent (16 for 24), while Boston struggled at 26 percent (5 for 19) from the floor. Peja Stojakovic scored 12 points in the third, while Paul Pierce (16 points) went scoreless. The fast-break points that helped the Celtics in the first half disappeared in the third. And eight turnovers by the Celtics in the third, compared to just seven in the first half, only made it more difficult.
By the end of the third, the Kings held a 93-80 lead.
"We played well, then the third quarter came and we stopped doing the things we do," said Gary Payton (9 points, 3 assists). "In the second half, they started making shots, they started doing what we did to them in the first half. They came back and blew us out." The Celtics' execution was impressive throughout the first half, as they beat the Kings at their own game and took a 63-55 lead into the break. Boston also had a 26-8 advantage in fast-break points before intermission. Appropriately, Ricky Davis capped Boston's first-half production with a driving dunk in transition. He leaped over a befuddled Stojakovic for the basket. Far from intimidated against the Kings in the first quarter, the Celtics went on an opening 17-6 run. During the spurt, three of seven field goals came on the break, including a 19-footer from Payton and a layup and a dunk from Raef LaFrentz. Providing a welcome complement to the scoring of Pierce, LaFrentz recorded 11 points in the first half. The Celtics closed the quarter with an 11-4 run and finished the first ahead, 36-18. While Sacramento is notoriously weak defensively, the fact that Boston shot 61 percent from the floor was still staggering. The starters missed just seven field goal attempts during the period.
Marcus Banks, who capped the first-quarter scoring with a pair of free throws, picked up where he left off at the start of the second. His fast-break layup gave Boston a 38-18 advantage.
But a 12-2 run that featured 7 points from ex-Celtic Darius Songaila cut the Kings' deficit in half. Boston kept pushing the pace and stretched its lead back to 17 (48-31) when Payton found Davis for an alley-oop layup with 6:18 left in the second. But behind a late 12-6 run, Sacramento closed within 6 (61-55). There was more to come. "You don't know what's going to happen in a 48-minute game," said Sacramento's Brad Miller (22 points, 10 rebounds). "That's the beauty of it. You've got to play the whole game."