CELTICS 106, BUCKS 96
Celtics spread wealth
Bucks are stopped as Pierce cashes in
Raef LaFrentz wondered if Paul Pierce realized just how close he was to recording a triple-double. Suspicions were raised with 1 minute 9 seconds remaining when Pierce shied away from an open shot, let the offense reset and passed to Jiri Welsch for a 3-pointer that essentially sealed the Celtics' 106-96 victory over the Bucks. The assist guaranteed Pierce the third triple-double of his career with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.
"I was asking Paul if he knew," said LaFrentz. "How many times have you seen Paul Pierce wide open, not a defender within 10 feet, at the end of the game and he pulls out and sets the offense and finds Jiri for the 10th assist? He knew he was close, but he swears up and down that he didn't know he had nine [assists] at the time. But it was a great performance."
Given the way the game played out, it seems only appropriate that Pierce's final act before a sold-out FleetCenter was an assist. Actually, Pierce accounted for the Celtics' final three assists, all on baskets that kept the Bucks at bay down the stretch. After Boston led by as many as 19 points in the third quarter, Milwaukee closed to within 7 late in the fourth, but would come no closer.
Although the Celtics' defense held the Bucks to 42 percent shooting from the floor, it was a night to appreciate the home team's offense. Boston shot 53 percent, recording season highs with 41 field goals and 30 assists. It was also the first time the Celtics surpassed the 100-point mark this season, including 18 on the fast break. Almost everyone who earned playing time got into the passing act. In addition to Pierce, Eric Williams and Mike James posted five assists apiece. Rookie point guard Marcus Banks was not far behind with four. For the Celtics, it was a sign their passing game is finally coming together.
"We're getting more and more comfortable with one another," said James, who also had 9 points. "It's easy to get assists when guys are knocking down the open shot. Tonight, [coach Jim O'Brien] was just letting us run quick and just letting us decide what type of offensive set we wanted to get into. I thought that was real good for us at times because we were just able to play off one another."
With Pierce setting the tone and standard for ball movement in the first half, Boston entered the break ahead, 58-45, shooting 58 percent. The Celtics established a double-digit advantage late in the second as both Pierce and James made concerted efforts to get others involved. James kicked the ball out to LaFrentz in the right corner for a 3-pointer that put the Celtics ahead, 56-41, with 1:34 to go in the quarter, their largest lead of the half.
It was the first time LaFrentz really made his presence felt in his return from a two-week stint on the injured list, but it would not be his last. LaFrentz stretched out the defense and contributed to a big night for the Boston bench by scoring 14 points on 50 percent shooting, including 3 for 6 from 3-point range. Of the four Celtics players in double figures, Williams (13 points, 7 rebounds), Banks (11 points) and LaFrentz came off the bench.
"I've learned in my time in the league that it really doesn't matter when you're on the floor," said LaFrentz. "Play like a starter, play hard, however many minutes you get. I think [O'Brien] is still trying to figure out where guys are going to be and what roles they're going to play."
With LaFrentz back in the lineup, Boston finally got an idea of what the team will look like with all the rotation players available. Although LaFrentz still needs to get back in top game shape and other players like Mark Blount (cut right index finger), Tony Battie (sore right knee), and Welsch (sprained left thumb) are banged up, the Celtics showed signs of becoming a potent offensive team.
After the Bucks knocked the Celtics' lead below double digits late in the fourth, Pierce found LaFrentz for a 3-pointer with 3:52 to go, pushing Boston's lead to 99-88. Next, Pierce hit Williams for a reverse layup as the Celtics maintained a comfortable cushion, 101-92, with less than two minutes to play. Finally, Pierce found Welsch for a clutch 3-pointer and key assist.
"Everybody knows that we've got to do it for four quarters," said Pierce. "That's what we've stressed. We're just trying to get some more consistency and get it done. We had our little lapses out there in the fourth quarter. We had a chance to put them away, and that's what we need to learn to do next. We need to learn to put teams away when we've got them on their back and not give them any confidence to get back into the game."
The Celtics will have a second chance to put away the Bucks when the teams meet again tonight in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.