From where coach Doc Rivers sat, the Celtics' offense looked out of synch last night at the FleetCenter. When Rivers glanced at the box score and saw they shot 51 percent from the floor, he was surprised. It seemed nothing more than a grind-it-out game, somewhat typical for the second of a back-to-back set.
But Rivers should have sensed something else typical in the Celtics' play, which, in part, explained the surprisingly high field goal percentage. Boston defeating Milwaukee, 103-97, with a late-game comeback was far from shocking. For all the bad habits and inconsistencies that creep into the Celtics' play, the fourth quarter has been a time for redemption and rallies. They have come back from a fourth-quarter or overtime deficit 21 times this season, including eight of their last 12 games. Boston saved its best for last against Milwaukee, shooting close to 70 percent in the final quarter behind the resurgent play of Paul Pierce.
"I didn't think we played great, but we did enough things to win the game," said Rivers. "We found a way. You know, it's amazing how many fourth quarters we come back in. It'd be nice not to have to, but it's nice that our guys just stayed in there and found a way."
After falling behind by 11 points in the third quarter and entering the fourth down, 73-70, the Celtics went to Pierce often, but they did not depend upon him to completely take over the game. To his credit, Pierce did not press on the offensive end after a first half in which he went 1 for 5 and the teams entered the break knotted at 47.
"I want to stay aggressive," said Pierce. "In the first half, the game didn't really have a good flow to it. It really didn't seem to get flowing until the end of the third or fourth quarter for us. We got into a nice rhythm where the ball was hopping."
For a second night in a row, the Celtics played smart down the stretch, executing and scoring when needed. They also moved the ball and found the open man, whether it was Pierce or not.
Marcus Banks tied the game, 73-73, with a 3-pointer. Then, Pierce hit the first of three fourth-quarter 3-pointers to give Boston the lead. A second straight 3-pointer from Pierce stretched the advantage, but the Bucks answered with Anthony Goldwire. The reserve guard, who was signed March 7, nailed two straight 3-pointers to tie the game at 81 with 7:14 remaining. But without leading scorer Michael Redd (left Achilles' tendinitis) and the Bucks looking to a player such as Goldwire, as Pierce gained momentum it was only a matter of time before the Celtics took the lead for good.
When a layup by Ricky Davis followed a 17-footer from Pierce with 5:12 left, it was that time. A quick 7-0 spurt, capped by another 3-pointer from Pierce, pushed the Celtics ahead, 92-85, with 4:02 to go. In the closing minutes, jumpers by Davis (27 points) and Mark Blount (10) kept the Bucks at bay, though the visitors did come within 2 points (99-97) with 18 seconds remaining. Davis and Delonte West sealed the game at the free throw line.
"We understand we're a good team when we move the ball and get in the flow," said Pierce. "We're a bad team when guys try to take it upon themselves to make things happen. We just kept our composure. They had the lead most of the game and we turned it around in the fourth quarter and did what we had to do get the win."
Pierce also commented that he keeps a close watch on scores throughout the Eastern Conference, knowing the Celtics' playoff seeding and home-court advantage still hang in the balance. Down by double digits in the third quarter, Pierce and his teammates undoubtedly saw a FleetCenter display flashing out-of-town scores, which showed Atlantic Division rival Philadelphia and possible first-round opponent Indiana comfortably ahead. That provided extra motivation for the fourth-quarter comeback. The Celtics remain 3 1/2 games ahead of the 76ers for first in the division and hold a half-game advantage over the Pacers in a possible battle for homecourt.
Since the Celtics have only two home games remaining in the regular season (Miami April 15 and New Jersey April 20), a win such as last night's is even more significant. Rivers wants the Celtics to feel unbeatable in their building. That has been a goal all season as part of preparation for the playoffs, and the team is 26-13 at the FleetCenter.
"The message you send is to yourself: You've got to win games at home," said Rivers. "It's not to tell everybody, `If you come in here, you can't win.' But to tell yourself, `When you come in here, you always win.' That was the point I was trying to make to them. This locker room has to be a feel-good place."
Home or away, it's clear the fourth quarter also has become a feel-good place for the Celtics.