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CELTICS 104, SUNS 102

Money in the bank

Led by red-hot Pierce, Celtics repay a recent debt to Suns

PHOENIX -- Paul Pierce doesn't just get into a zone on offense. He can reach that rare place when almost every time he touches the ball something good transpires. That happened last night in the second half against the Suns. And the Celtics followed the example Pierce set not only on offense, but also on defense, taking their play to a higher level. Inspired by Pierce, the Celtics came back from a 17-point, third-quarter deficit to defeat Phoenix, 104-102, at America West Arena.

 

Ricky Davis hit the winner -- an 18-footer from the left side -- with 2.8 seconds remaining after receiving a pass from Pierce.

"We got down and we just didn't give in," said Pierce (27 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, 4 steals). "I'm starting to see a pattern with this ball club, just in second halves of ballgames when we're down. The resiliency is starting to be there. It's funny because it's coming sooner than I thought it would. It's a great win for us especially with the circumstances, down [17] points. We fought back.

"In the huddle, guys seemed like they were putting their heads down. I was like, `Hey, don't put your head down. We're about to win this game.' We're down 15 points, but there's a lot of time to go. It just seemed like the mood of the team wasn't good in the timeouts. I just tried to pick us up. I can talk about it. But at the same time, I've got to lead by example and that's what I tried to do on the court, make some hustle plays that carried over to the rest of the guys."

The come-from-behind victory was a stark contrast to the first meeting this season at the FleetCenter Dec. 5, when Phoenix staged the biggest comeback in franchise history, erasing a 29-point deficit. But more importantly, the win provided the first indication that the Celtics are starting to build chemistry. Although Pierce engineered the comeback, everyone was contributing to gain and sustain the lead in the fourth, a task that became increasingly difficult down the stretch.

The Celtics led, 93-84, when Mark Blount hit a free throw with 5:21 to play. But Phoenix went on a 7-0 run, capped by a pair of Stephon Marbury free throws that tied the game, 99-99, with 30.6 seconds remaining. On the next possession, Mike James (10 points) hit a 3-pointer from the right side to give the Celtics a 102-99 advantage with 20.8 seconds remaining. The basket prompted Pierce to hop onto the scorers table as the teams gathered for another timeout.

Anfernee Hardaway responded with a 3-pointer that tied the game. Then, Davis was left open and in position to win the game. Coach Jim O'Brien wanted a timeout to draw up a play, but he was late with the call. Davis's shot came out of the Celtics' passing game, another sign of the team's growing chemistry. Phoenix botched its final chance when Marbury lost the handle on the ball in the lane.

"They left me and Walt [McCarty] wide open and it was whoever wanted to shoot it or whoever got it first, I guess," said Davis (14 points). "Guys know where guys are at all times. Guys are just playing and moving without the ball and that's a big key. [Hitting the winner] feels great. It gets your confidence back going. It gets you confidence from other guys on the floor."

The Celtics' luck changed in 21 seconds, the time it took for Pierce to hit two consecutive 3-pointers. The shots brought the Celtics to within 73-68 with 3:05 remaining in the third, which was a considerable accomplishment considering the Green trailed by 17 (73-56) with 6:10 remaining in the third. Pierce followed his 3-pointers by finding Davis for an alley-oop dunk, then hitting Chris Mihm for a dunk. Pierce went back to the arc for a 3-pointer with 24.2 seconds left that tied the score, 75-75.

When his third-quarter clinic in 3-point shooting, passing, tenacious defense and leadership concluded, Pierce had scored 13 points in the period and sparked a 19-2 run that would continue into the fourth. With ball movement largely generated by Pierce, the Celtics shot 69 percent in the third, while tightening up their defense to hold the Suns to 35 percent.

Both teams made runs in the first half, but it was always Boston trying to respond to a spurt by Phoenix. And when Marbury hit a 44-footer with one-10th of a second left until the half, it seemed to confirm it was not the Celtics' night. Courtesy of the 3-pointer by Marbury, the Suns entered the break ahead, 56-45. The 11-point spread was their largest lead of the first half. But it wasn't all luck that gave Phoenix the double-digit lead. The Suns shot 51 percent in the first half.

"We're trying to put some consistent defense together and we can't seem to do it," said O'Brien. "We played great defense in the second half. We challenged 56 percent of their shots and held them to 32 percent shooting, which is impressive. But we need to stop digging holes. We seem to get down a lot."

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