NEW ORLEANS -- Drawing on his playing and coaching experience, Doc Rivers knew he could only say and do so much to motivate the Celtics last night against the lowly Hornets. The time for rah-rah speeches was long past, even though New Orleans presented challenges that were more mental than physical. Pride and playoff preparation should be enough motivation for Boston, a team looking to earn late-season respect.
And they were.
After a shaky start, the Celtics dominated the way they expected to, defeating New Orleans, 113-100. The victory stretched Boston's winning streak to seven games and completed a season sweep of the Hornets for the first time since the 1989-90 season.
"This was a great win for us," said Rivers. "We came out on this trip [to Houston and New Orleans] and wanted two wins. We got them, and I'm very happy. Once we got the lead, the whole team was concerned with keeping the lead."
Boston pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring New Orleans, 31-17, and improving in the areas in which they struggled during the first half. The Celtics kept their turnovers down (just two, for no points) and kept the Hornets' field goal percentage down (37 percent vs. 52 percent in the first half).
The visitors shot 60 percent from the floor and from 3-point range for the quarter. They led by as many as 23 (91-68) when Ricky Davis capped a 16-1 run with a 3-pointer with 2 minutes 17 seconds left in the third.
While the second unit helped bring Boston back by starting a 16-4 second-quarter run, the starters were responsible for the decisive third-quarter spurt. Gary Payton started it with a pair of free throws and a 16-foot fadeaway. A pair of steals and a fast-break dunk by Tony Allen kept the momentum going. Next, Paul Pierce (23 points) hit a 22-footer, a 6-footer, and a 3-pointer in succession. Davis (27 points) came in for Allen for the final touch.
With the game well in hand in the fourth, Antoine Walker (18 points, nine rebounds) was still clapping and shouting at his teammates, "Let's go."
When Kendrick Perkins, who has been used sparingly since Walker's return, checked in with 3:34 remaining and Boston ahead, 108-90, the final blow had been delivered.
"I don't want to blow my own horn, but I'm like the spark plug," said Allen. "Whenever Doc gives me that look like `I need your energy,' I give him that energy. We know who our main guys are, so I just do whatever I can do to help the team."
Walker sensed the Celtics were ripe for the taking early in the first quarter as they made careless passes and lacked urgency. And he had something to say about it. "Hey, Green," Walker said during a break in the action with Boston nursing a 14-12 lead. "We're trading buckets. We can't trade buckets." Walker was trying to preempt lackadaisical play against the worst team in the West.
In facing bottom-dwelling teams, the danger for Boston is playing down to the level of the competition.
While Walker's words did not take immediate effect -- the Hornets established an 8-point lead at the end of the first quarter and again early in the second -- the Celtics pulled it together by halftime. Boston closed with a pair of 3-pointers (one from Davis, one from Payton) and took a 63-57 lead into the break.
The visitors entered halftime with eight turnovers, though there easily could have been more. Davis nearly threw the ball away trying to get fancy with a behind-the-back pass to Payton. The veteran point guard, however, collected the ball after bobbling it.
On another occasion, Delonte West threw an alley-oop pass that was nowhere near Allen. The bad pass gave Boston its final turnover of the half with 7:49 left.
The Celtics were then able to piece together a 16-4 run, taking the lead for good (44-42) when West hit a 3-pointer with 5:24 left in the second.
"I don't know if I want to say we had tired legs at the beginning, but we just couldn't get any defensive stops," said Pierce. "But we regrouped at halftime and came out with more energy on defense. [Sustaining the lead] is all about growth. It's just maturing as a team. It shows how quickly we can grow."