CELTICS 87, 76ERS 84
Celtics end up on top
They're tied for Atlantic lead after win
Mike James made just one field goal last night, a 3-pointer with 50.7 seconds remaining. But it was the basket that pushed Boston ahead for good. To celebrate, James pumped his fists and marked the end of all his offensive frustration with one, long yell. It was an image that appropriately captured the Celtics' 87-84 come-from-behind win over the Sixers.
After struggling offensively in the second quarter (that may be an understatement) and falling behind by 14 points early in the third, Boston practically willed itself to victory. Like James, the Celtics did not give up, even when it seemed almost certain last night was not their night at a sold-out FleetCenter, when they shot 23 percent (3 for 13) and scored just 10 points in the second period, when Philadelphia backup forward Kyle Korver (a career-high 18 points) literally couldn't miss, when Jim O'Brien picked up a technical in the first quarter, when three starters went scoreless in the first half, when they entered the break with a turnover total (13) more than twice their assist total (6).
"I can assure you I have no definite opinions, none whatsoever, about where we are offensively and defensively right now," said O'Brien. "I do have an opinion about the character of our team. I think it's very, very high. And I guess, if you have to be sure about something, you might as well be sure about that.
"We clearly have a tremendous amount of work to do. Our rotations are in shambles right now. We're not getting everybody on the same page, nor should they be. It's just going to take some time. But we want to win basketball games as we grow as a team. This win, the Dallas win, were very important because they were won down the stretch."
The newest version of the Celtics, the one now tied with the Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division, does not give up easily, and can grind out wins with the best of them. Boston fell behind by 11 points (70-59) in the fourth before it staged a 16-0 run that gave the team its first lead since the opening minutes of the second quarter.
With three straight 3-pointers (two from Jiri Welsch and one from Walter McCarty, the Celtics tied the game, 70-70, with 6:08 remaining. A free throw from Paul Pierce (resulting from a technical assessed Philadelphia coach Randy Ayers) followed by an 18-footer from Ricky Davis and a 20-footer from Pierce, pushed Boston ahead, 75-70. But almost as quickly as the Celtics built their lead, they lost it.
The Sixers staged a 7-0 run, capped by a 3-pointer from Aaron McKie that gave the visitors a 2-point lead (77-75) with 2:53 to go. Following a timeout, Welsch (a career-high 22 points) hit a pair of free throws to tie the game. Then, James hit his 3-pointer. Although Philadelphia twice closed within 1 point over the final 20 seconds, Boston relied on its defense (a big rebound by Pierce on an Eric Snow 3-point miss, a block by Vin Baker on a layup attempt by Snow) and free throw shooting (5 of 6) to pull out the win.
"It was a big win," said Pierce (31 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists). "It was definitely a team effort and it was one of those wins where we won it with our defense. It wasn't just our offensive game, we had to grind it out and get stops at the end and that's what we did."
It was a good thing the Celtics did not depend on their offensive game to get it done, especially considering their play during the first two quarters. There was no Allen Iverson for the Celtics to worry about, but they had plenty of other reasons for concern during the first half. Boston entered the break behind, 45-33, after shooting 36 percent from the floor. The Celtics appeared out of synch and uncertain about what they wanted to do on offense. They didn't get out on the fast break.
But it should be noted that O'Brien expected a downturn in offensive production. As a result of the Celtics' recent trade with the Cavaliers, the majority of practice has been devoted to teaching the newcomers defensive schemes. Offense has been sacrificed. That said, the Celtics' early defense was not all that strong either, as they allowed the Sixers to shoot 49 percent in the first half, including 56 percent in the second quarter. The inconsistent defensive effort was the primary reason the Boston offense stalled.
During halftime, O'Brien naturally emphasized the importance of playing better on defense hoping better offense would follow. The Celtics mounted a 16-6 run in the third that cut the Philadelphia lead to 4 points (53-49) with 4:01 remaining in the period. It was a sign of better play and a bigger run to come. In the fourth, Boston held Philadelphia to 29 percent from the floor. And the Sixers shot only 31 percent in the second half.
"We can't ever quit," said James. "We're never out of a game. And [last night] that was just another proven fact. Even though we weren't playing the best basketball, we still were right there."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.