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KNICKS 94, CELTICS 88

Celtics keep sliding

Pierce rips team for being 'soft'

Four straight losses, two of them to the Knicks. Four straight second-half meltdowns. Do we sense a pattern here?

Paul Pierce does. And he doesn't like it.

"I think we're one of the softest teams in the league," he growled after the Celtics somehow managed to lose, 94-88, to the Allan Houston-less, Keith Van Horn-less Knicks last night at the FleetCenter. "It all comes down to toughness. It just seems when the tough get going, we start running. Teams push us around, we don't push back. We have to get some toughness."

As they say, cutting to the chase.

Pierce had 16 points on a labored, 4-of-15 shooting night. He played only 33 minutes because of foul trouble. When he went to the bench with 8:29 left in the third quarter, the Celtics, who had led by 13 in the first half and by 10 at the break, held a 54-52 lead. In the remaining time in the quarter, all of which Pierce witnessed on the bench with four fouls, the Knicks outscored the Celtics, 23-9.

To be fair, the Knicks had started their pivotal run while Pierce was out there; the visitors opened the third with 7 straight points and would take the lead for good exactly one minute after Pierce departed. But you can't score 12 points in a period, as the Celtics did, or go 5-for-20, as the Celtics did, or get manhandled again on the glass, 17-10, as the Celtics did.

And, as Pierce sees it, that's all about getting tougher and figuring out a way to finish games. (Too bad they couldn't have used spectator Keith Foulke last night.)

"They can't depend on me," he said. "It's got to come from everybody. It's nothing you can say or preach. You've got to be prepared to play 48 minutes."

He was on a roll.

"We just don't understand how to win," he said. "We get leads at the half and we settle on it and don't compete for the rest of the game. I don't want to blame this on us being a young team, and we've just come together, but it's got to get to a point where everybody's on the same page and knows what we have to do to finish ballgames. We're not doing enough sacrificing right now to get over the top."

This one looked a lot like the previous three losses. Ugly. The Celtics had a reasonably strong first half, building a 20-7 lead before the game was 10 minutes old. A back-to-last-season spurt of threes in the final three minutes of the second (two by Walter McCarty, one by Eric Williams) had the Celtics leading by 11. It was 51-41 at the break.

Hey, they led by 16 in New York at halftime and lost. They led by 9 at the half in Philadelphia and lost. The Celtics are now 2-4 in games in which they've led at halftime -- and 1-5 in games in which they trailed after three.

"The second half, in particular the third quarter, has really been a problem area for us," understated coach Jim O'Brien. "Especially when we go into halftime with a lead. Same guys, but we don't seem to get the job done. We have to figure out how to play four quarters of basketball."

The third quarter turned the game around, and this year's Celtics team, unlike those of the last two years, has yet to develop a real come-from-behind persona. They get down by 8 with three minutes to play and that's that. In the past couple of years, they were just getting started at that point.

The Knicks led by 12 after three. The Celtics opened the fourth with 7 straight points. The Knicks responded with 5. That's how it went for the final 12 minutes. Shandon Anderson (season-high 28 points) and Kurt Thomas (15 points, 11 rebounds) got the big hoops when they were needed. The Knicks made their free throws. Dikembe Mutombo looked decidedly less calcified in scoring 13 points, collecting 12 rebounds, and rejecting 4 shots.

The Celtics' last gasp came after Vin Baker made two free throws with 3:09 left to pull Boston within 88-82. Baker had trouble at the line (6 of 12), but he also had 16 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots. The Knicks failed to convert on their next three possessions. The Celtics couldn't capitalize and then Thomas hit a short flip with 74 seconds left, making it 90-82, and prompting a timeout and mass exodus to the exits.

You can talk about the absence of Raef LaFrentz and the new point guards and the habitual reliance on Pierce, and all of that figures into the equation.

But Pierce is right: This team needs to develop a thick skin. And fast. He didn't exempt himself from his toughness tirade and he isn't one for big locker room speeches.

He wants to see it on the court, every night, all night. Starting now.

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Celtics
94
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atlantic div. standings
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Philadelphia 9 9 .500 --
Boston 7 9 .438 1.0
New Jersey 7 9 .438 1.0
New York 7 10 .412 1.5
Washington 6 10 .375 2.0
Miami 5 12 .294 3.5
Orlando 1 15 .063 7.0
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