SACRAMENTO -- The Celtics must now seriously consider the possibility of finishing their road trip without a win.
It was more of the same last night as Boston dropped a 116-112 decision to Sacramento at ARCO Arena, losing three in a row for the first time this season. All three losses have come on a trip that continues tonight in Los Angeles against the Clippers and concludes Monday night in Denver.
The injury-depleted Kings may have represented the Celtics' best chance for a win before heading home.
For anyone who has stayed up late and watched the Celtics out West, the final minutes last night had an all-too-familiar look. After battling back from a 7-point, fourth-quarter deficit, Boston pulled within 104-101 and appeared poised to compete down the stretch. That was until Kenny Thomas slowed the Celtics' momentum with a 3-point play that took shape after Brad Miller missed a 20-footer. Thomas grabbed the rebound and put himself in position to score the easy basket and draw a foul. That play put the Kings ahead, 107-101, with 2 minutes 35 seconds remaining, and highlighted all that has gone wrong for the Celtics on this trip and, quite frankly, for much of this season. Poor rebounding. Poor defense.
''That was huge," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. ''It was a microcosm. I'm a believer if you don't lock in defensively for 3 1/2 quarters, then bad things are going to happen. When the game gets close and you need a stop, you most likely aren't going to get it."
At the other end, Boston committed yet another turnover on its way to 22, for 23 points. Sacramento again capitalized as Thomas turned the possession into a pair of free throws that gave Sacramento a 109-101 lead with 2:11 left. Boston got within 4 (109-105) in the final two minutes, but a 22-footer from Thomas with 41.4 seconds left essentially sealed the victory for the Kings. A dunk by Kevin Martin moments later put the crowd of 17,317 in full celebration mode. The Celtics have not won here since Feb. 16, 1996.
''They're a tough team to guard the way their team is set up," said Paul Pierce (22 points). ''They have big men who can shoot. Mike Bibby [33 points] really had it going. Once he starting making shots, he put a lot of pressure on our defense to collapse on him."
Just when it looked as if the Kings were putting the game out of reach, the Celtics remembered the opportunity before them. Trailing, 71-56, after a Bibby 3-pointer with 8:45 left in the third quarter, Boston rallied with a 23-10 run and closed within 81-79 on an 18-footer by Raef LaFrentz. Just as LaFrentz found some consistency with his jump shot, the rest of the Celtics' offense found its rhythm, particularly from 3-point range.
The Celtics outscored the Kings, 37-28, in the third and recorded seven 3-pointers in the quarter, tying an ARCO Arena record. Pierce, in large part, was responsible from the barrage. If he was not making 3-pointers, he was finding open teammates along the perimeter. Of the five 3-pointers that did not belong to Pierce, he earned assists on four. By the end of the quarter, Sacramento clung to an 87-86 lead.
But last night, Boston couldn't take advantage of any of the opportunities provided by its offense (shooting 52 percent, led by 33 points from Ricky Davis) or by Sacramento, including a chance to play the Kings without Peja Stojakovic (strained right groin), Bonzi Wells (partially torn right groin), and Shareef Abdur-Rahim (broken jaw). This season, the trio has accounted for almost half the points (48.7) Sacramento averages per game (99). Stojakovic, Wells, and Abdur-Rahim also represent the Kings' second-, third-, and fourth-best rebounders.
The absence of three such important players usually leaves a team in disarray, but the Celtics knew better than to expect any such gift. Or, as Pierce commented when told which players the Kings would be missing, ''We don't think about that. We have a lot to focus on ourselves." The captain was right. It didn't matter who wore the Sacramento uniform as Boston continued to commit turnovers (14 for 18 points), struggle to keep pace on the glass (outrebounded, 24-18), and suffer defensive lapses. That explains why the Celtics trailed, 59-49, at halftime.
Despite promising early play by Al Jefferson (8 points, 6 rebounds, no fouls in 12 first-half minutes) and Davis, Sacramento quickly went ahead in the first half and led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. Bibby capped an 11-3 run in the second with a 3-pointer to give the Kings their first 12-point advantage (41-29) with 7:03 remaining in the quarter. Boston closed within 5 points on a couple of occasions late in the quarter, but the Green got no closer for the remainder of the half.
''That's a really satisfying win," said Sacramento coach Rick Adelman. ''We played so well in the first half, then they made their run in the third quarter. They started making shots, threes, but we did a nice job in the fourth quarter coming back. I'm really proud of our guys. They followed what we wanted to do and got a good win."
Meanwhile, Rivers is still waiting for the Celtics to follow what he wants them to do. If they do, Boston can only hope a good win will follow.