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CELTICS 109, BOBCATS 106

Celtics charitable again, almost to a fault

The Celtics will practice today and Doc Rivers has half a mind to keep the basketballs away from the fellows. It's not that he's concerned for their safety, although that might be one reason. He also knows that with no basketball, there can be no turnovers.

Yes, the Celtics returned home from a tough, 1-4 road trip and took a tough, 109-106 decision last night from the undermanned and undersized Charlotte Bobcats before 14,202, many of whom may ask for inclusion in basketball's witness protection program after this one. Yes, the Celtics got the now almost obligatory big game from Paul Pierce (31 points, 10 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) and a strong game from Ricky Davis (23 points). Yes, they got some late-game heroics from an unlikely source in Orien Greene.

But the numbers that stuck out after this one were the following: 35-5. That is the advantage the Bobcats had in points off turnovers. It's the reason why Charlotte took 100 shots, 30 more than the Celtics, and had 17 offensive rebounds, which led to 20 second-chance points. It's the reason Charlotte could shoot 40 percent and the Celtics could shoot 57 percent and the game could still be tied, 102-102, until Greene's eventual winning hoop with 57.5 seconds left. It also explained how the Celtics could not put away the depleted visitors despite building double-digit leads in the second (13 points) and third (16 points) quarters.

''Very fortunate," was the way Pierce accurately described the Celtics' situation after this one. ''I'm waiting for the day when we can be more consistent."

Join the club, captain. The Celtics were back home after a miserable trip in which they played little defense and turned the ball over with astonishing and devastating regularity. Even before last night's turnover-strewn submission, Rivers said, ''Turnovers frustrate me more than anything. We just don't value the ball." Then he watched his team cough it up 24 times, while forcing only five themselves.

''We've just got to keep working at it," Rivers said. ''Maybe we should practice without the basketball. That way, we couldn't turn it over."

He wasn't kidding. The coach went on to say that Mike Fratello, his coach in Atlanta, actually did that once. (''Typical Mike," Rivers laughed.) But, Rivers said, ''with no ball, we kept telling Mike that we'd already scored. Still, it made you think."

That might be a good thing. The Celtics came close to wasting a ridiculously efficient offensive night (57 percent shooting with 26 assists for 40 baskets) because of turnovers. Heading into last night's game, the Celtics ranked second in the league in field goal percentage (behind only San Antonio) and 29th in turnovers (ahead of only New York).

''I've got to get it right. We've all got to get it right," said Mark Blount, whose five turnovers led the grisly parade. Delonte West also had five, while Pierce had four.

And the quasi-Bobcats might have been the only team the Celtics could have won playing like they did. Charlotte was without Emeka Okafor, Sean May, Melvin Ely, and lost Kareem Rush 10 minutes into the game. The Bobcats played center Primoz Brezec, their only legitimate big man, for 32 minutes, just 12 in the second half, which is when the team rallied from a 16-point hole in the third to tie things, 81-81, entering the fourth. Brezec still managed 19 points and six rebounds.

But a lineup with no one taller than the 6-7 Jumaine Jones was the one that got Charlotte back into the game -- and nearly pulled off what would have been a demoralizing loss for the home boys. The Bobcats actually regained the lead in the fourth, 92-89, with 7:30 to play.

The game was tied at 100 with 2:39 left and Charlotte then missed on two occasions to take the lead. It was tied, 102-102, after two free throws by Brevin Knight (18 points, 12 assists, 6 steals) with 68 seconds left. Then, Greene, who played only one minute prior to a nine-minute stint in the fourth, blew by his man and kept going, surprising everyone.

''I knew everybody would be looking for me to pass the ball, so I just went to the basket," Greene said.

Rivers said he put Greene into the game ''for energy." The coach got 6 points out of the rook, including a rare jumper and two big free throws with 17.3 seconds to play that made it a 108-104 game. ''He just came in and he wasn't scared," Rivers said.

After Greene's freebies, Knight made an off-balance hoop (108-106) and West was fouled. He missed the first, made the second, and the Celtics watched as Bernard Robinson (0 for 11 on threes this season) was well short from international waters as the buzzer mercifully sounded.

Despite the boo-boos, the twin feelings afterward were ones of relief and reward. Turnovers are a problem and problems can be fixed. Results are lasting. As Blount matter-of-factly put it, ''We won. That's the objective, isn't it?"

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