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CELTICS 108, WIZARDS 103

Going out on top

Celtics end year by getting back on winning track

You can forget about giving away those Wizards tickets to the letter carrier -- unless he or she happens to be a serious hoop fan. This is a new year -- actually, a new, new year -- and Washington is a team that looks a lot like the Celtics: fun to watch, not a lot of defense, and unpredictable as ever.

In other words, a team worth seeing in today's defense-centric NBA.

Yesterday, in a New Year's Eve matinee, the Celtics and Wizards didn't offer up anything worthy for the vaults at Springfield, but they did engage in a pretty entertaining shootout, emphasis on "shoot." The Celtics ended up being the last ones standing -- barely -- taking a 108-103 decision before 15,774 partisans at the FleetCenter.

There was no wiggle room in this one for either team. The Celtics' largest lead was 6. Washington's largest was 5. There were 13 ties and 23 lead changes. The outcome was very much in doubt until Antawn Jamison (29 points) back-rimmed a wide-open 3-pointer in the closing seconds. Had that gone through -- and the way the game was going, you thought it would -- they'd still be playing.

But it didn't, and the Celtics ended their three-game skid and ended 2004 on a winning note. Boston got 26 points from Paul Pierce, solid bench play from Ricky Davis (15 points, 5 assists) and Tony Allen (10 points, 4 rebounds), and an excellent, all-around effort from Gary Payton (18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists).

"A great win," said a relieved Doc Rivers, knowing he could watch some college football last night instead of having to go back over the tape of another heartbreaker at home.

Breaking down the stat sheet, the Celtics won by staking claim to the free throw line. The Wizards made five more field goals and four more threes. The Wizards had 25 assists to the Celtics' 18. But the Celtics attempted 34 free throws to Washington's 10, including a rather numbing 20-1 in the second half.

"You do the math," growled Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who was hot over a noncall in the closing seconds. "I thought something happened there that deserved something else."

Asked about the absence of leading scorer Gilbert Arenas (flu), Jordan said, "It was not having Gilbert, or something else I don't want to get fined for."

This promised to be a fun afternoon, given that Washington and Boston are two of three teams in the NBA that score and allow 100 or more points a game. (Orlando is the other.) The Celtics have been routinely surrendering 100 points or more -- yesterday was the 10th straight game that has happened -- and the Wizards seem to have embraced Jordan's offense this season while, until yesterday's loss, quietly putting together the third-best record in the conference (and that's with four losses to Miami).

Arenas was a game-time scratch. He had missed only one game before yesterday, the opener when he was suspended by the league for an offseason firearm violation. That left it up to Jamison and the electric Larry Hughes, who poured in 33 to match his season high. Hughes was 6 for 6 from international waters, and he had two late drives in the first half where it appeared he was wearing a FastLane transponder on his forehead. It was that effortless.

"He's a tough guard," Pierce said of Hughes.

"They are a matchup nightmare," Rivers said.

The fourth quarter alone featured eight lead changes, another indication of the closeness of the affair. The Celtics, trailing, 92-87, with 6:08 to play, put together a 12-3 run in which they took a 99-95 lead with three minutes left on a Pierce trey. Pierce had 6 points in the run, during which Washington could manage only a 3-point play (and the second-half free throw!) from Jamison.

Washington, however, got 5 straight points from Jamison to regain the lead, only to surrender it to hoops from Mark Blount and Payton. Hughes's last trey tied things at 103-103 with 57.8 seconds to play.

Neither team made another shot. The Celtics didn't have to. Pierce got fouled by Hughes and made 1 of 2. Then, after a miss by Hughes, Pierce slapped the ball off Jarvis Hayes and out of bounds. Jordan thought Pierce slapped something that looked more like a human -- and let the officials know it.

Jiri Welsch was then deliberately fouled and made two with 11.5 seconds to play. Everyone knew Washington needed a three and Jamison (2 of 4 from international waters) got a wide-open look when Allen slipped (official version) or was pushed (Allen's version). The shot missed, Davis got the rebound, made two icing free throws, and sent everyone home happy.

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