CELTICS 91, KINGS 82
Hot time for Baker, Celtics
Jim O'Brien could not have been prouder. The Celtics coach finally saw his team dig in and play defense the way he dreams it up and drills it in practice. And it could not have come at a better time with the high-scoring Kings at the FleetCenter. If O'Brien ever wishes to reinforce the importance of defense, he need only replay the Celtics' 91-82 victory over Sacramento last night.
To place the win in proper context, consider: Sacramento arrived in town with one of the most potent offenses in the league. O'Brien said the Kings were a joy to watch with the way they move the ball and score -- unless you were a coach preparing to play them. For opponents, a team shooting 47.8 percent (first in the league) and averaging 106.0 points (second) can be more than a daunting challenge. O'Brien called the Kings "an offensive juggernaut."
At first, it appeared the Celtics were going to be overwhelmed as they fell behind, 15-2, in less than four minutes. But the Celtics believe they can be one of the top three defensive teams in the NBA and showed why that could be the case. Boston held Sacramento to 35.6 percent shooting from the floor and 24 points below their average. The Celtics' defensive numbers were even more pronounced in the second half, with the Kings shooting 30.4 percent and scoring just 37 points.
"We [got] down and acted like we wanted to play," said O'Brien of his team's defensive effort over the last two quarters. "There's not going to be any surprises when we win. When we win, we're going to defend. If we're not winning, it's because we're not defending. If you look at the stat sheet when we called time [in the first quarter], it's like 12-2 and they're shooting 75 percent. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what the problem is. You've got to defend. If you don't, a team like [Sacramento] embarrasses you."
Instead of suffering any embarrassment, Boston snapped a three-game losing streak, defeated the Kings at home for the first time since Jan. 7, 2000, improved to 2-0 against Western Conference opponents, and reached the .500 mark (3-3) again. For the first time this season, the Celtics maintained a fourth-quarter lead and they did so with poise and a minimum of forced shots by Paul Pierce.
In the final period, Boston held Sacramento to 18.2 percent shooting (4 for 22). Peja Stojakovic, who entered with the No. 2 scoring average in the league (27.8), finished with just 13 points. Kedrick Brown deserved most of the credit for that. Overall, the Celtics defended the Kings' perimeter players as aggressively as possible and made the big men try to convert their jump shots. Brad Miller did that early, scoring 12 of his team-high 19 in the first. But Boston's defense picked up as the game progressed.
The Celtics got just the type of confidence-building win they needed. Despite an off night from Pierce (17 points on 7-for-19 shooting, including 0 for 4 from 3-point range), Boston had plenty of offense available. When O'Brien rested Pierce, the Celtics were able to either increase their lead or gain ground.
For the third time this season, Vin Baker led the team in scoring (18 points) and added a team-high 13 rebounds. The Celtics spent much of Saturday's practice working on ways to get the ball to Baker, since he was leading the league in field goal percentage entering the game. It was time well spent. Off the bench, Mark Blount (10 points), Eric Williams (12 points), and Raef LaFrentz (9 points, 9 rebounds) provided important contributions.
"Because we're such a new team, I think we're learning more and more about ourselves every game and every day," said Baker. "I think we learned a lot about ourselves [last night]. We're trying to build our identity and trying to build character. So, obviously, Paul not having a huge night scoring, and us beating a quality team like Sacramento, is huge for our confidence."
The first character test came when the Celtics fell behind by 13 less than four minutes into the first. But in the Celtics' favor was the fact that the Kings are one of the worst defensive teams in the league. So, before the Kings could truly pile it on, the Celtics attacked the visitors, climbing back into the game by closing the first with a 15-2 run to take a 26-25 lead. The Kings surged again at the end of the second quarter, gaining a 45-39 halftime advantage.
Brown tied the game, 51-51, with a wide-open 3-pointer from the right corner with 7:02 left in the third. The Celtics did a good job of finding the open man for uncontested shots. But the game remained tight in the third. A 3-pointer and running 8-footer from Marcus Banks accounted for Boston's final two baskets in the third and gave the Green a 73-69 lead entering the fourth. Behind their defense, the Celtics steadily stretched their advantage to a game-high 13 (91-78) in the final period.
"We kept our composure," said Pierce. "That was the key. We haven't been doing that the last few games down the stretch."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.