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LAKERS 105, CELTICS 97

A cruel twist dooms Celtics

Pierce sprains ankle; Lakers can't be caught

After Paul Pierce fouled out with 38.2 seconds remaining, he took a seat on the Celtics' bench and began the painful process of unlacing and removing his right sneaker. For almost the entire game, the size-15 Nike kept Pierce in the game by preventing his mildly sprained right ankle from swelling.

Pierce suffered the sprain with 5:10 remaining in the first quarter when he stepped on Smush Parker. He returned less than two minutes after suffering the injury, though he clearly could not move as fluidly or aggressively as usual.

With Pierce hobbled and the Celtics playing their fourth game in five nights, there were no last-minute heroics, unlike what has transpired in recent games against the Lakers. Though the Celtics lost, 105-97, the sellout crowd at TD Banknorth Garden witnessed a stoic performance from Pierce and an inspired outing by Tony Allen that nearly propelled Boston to its largest comeback victory of the season.

Even with Allen rising to the occasion and competently guarding Kobe Bryant for most of the game once it became clear that the injured Pierce could not, the Lakers were too much for the Celtics. Boston never led, and never found its rhythm after starting the contest with three straight turnovers.

The Celtics trailed by as many as 19 points before closing within 5 down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Bryant, however, dominated the final quarter and finished the game with 43 points.

''We just couldn't get any defensive consistency," said Pierce (26 points, 9 rebounds), who iced his ankle after the game and pronounced himself day-to-day.

''They shot well all game, and we put ourselves in a hole at halftime [56-40]. With it being the fourth game in five nights, and when we have to come back, you know it's going to be tough. You just can't dig a hole like that and expect to come back just because you're at home.

''I don't know if we can use fatigue as an excuse. It was about the team who wanted it the most, who had the will. They were a little bit more mentally tough."

But at the end of the third quarter, it looked as if the Celtics might be able to match the Lakers' toughness. The Celtics outscored the Lakers, 34-26, in the period and put together a couple of key runs to make the game competitive, reducing the deficit to single digits (82-74). Wally Szczerbiak started a 10-1 run with a 3-pointer and Delonte West capped it with another trey. In between, Pierce added a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.

Pierce looked increasingly more comfortable playing on his sprained ankle, especially when he accounted for all the points in an 8-0 run late in the third. He finished the spurt with a 3-pointer that brought Boston within 6 (75-69) with 2:14 left.

''The second half, defensively, we were much better [holding the Lakers to 45 percent]," said coach Doc Rivers. ''We cut into [the Lakers' lead] a little bit. But if you spot them 16 points and they have a guy like Kobe Bryant on their team, eventually during that run, he's going to make a shot."

Bryant made more than a few shots in the fourth, even when harassed by the athletic Allen. The NBA's scoring leader had six of the Lakers' eight field goals in the fourth and scored 16 of their 23 points in the quarter. In the process, Bryant prevented Boston from making it a one-possession game once the home team closed within 5 (97-92) on a 19-footer from Szczerbiak with 2:37 remaining. Bryant answered with a 22-footer. A driving layup by Pierce again brought Boston with in 5 at the two-minute mark.

It appeared the Celtics caught a break when Bryant missed a 22-footer on the other end. But after a Szczerbiak miss, an errant Pierce 3-pointer left a long rebound for Bryant, who drove to the basket and tallied a layup on the break despite the best efforts of Allen and West to foul him. The basket pushed the Lakers ahead, 101-94, and the Celtics would not make any more headway.

The fourth-quarter display by Bryant should take nothing away from the efforts of Allen. For the second night in a row, he showed the form that made him such a promising rookie. He finished with a season-high 18 points, and career highs in blocks (4), and free throws attempted (9) and made (8).

But he was disappointed that he could not stop Bryant long enough to give the Celtics a better chance to win.

''It's not about me," said Allen. ''It's about the team. I enjoy the challenge [of guarding Byrant]. I'm hard on myself. I don't think I did a great job. That's why I have to work harder."

Rivers and Pierce called the job done by Allen ''phenomenal." If only the rest of the Celtics could have summoned the energy to put in a similar effort on both ends.

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