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ROCKETS 95, CELTICS 80

Celtics are put on ice

Pierce is plagued by left hand pain

The burgeoning Celtics-Rockets rivalry generated a lot of talk this week, none of it necessarily good from a Boston perspective. It all started Sunday night at the Toyota Center with what Maurice Taylor termed "chirping" by the Celtics in celebration of a big win against Houston, which sported the best field goal defense in the league.

Needless to say, the Celtics' trash talk provided extra motivation for the visitors in the rematch last night at the FleetCenter.

The talk ended with Paul Pierce postgame in the Celtics locker room, but the captain's comments were medical in nature. Pierce discussed the pain and numbness he experienced in his left hand throughout the game, which explained why he scored 4 points and only shot 1 of 10. Pierce originally hurt his left hand diving after a loose ball in Milwaukee Tuesday night. "I just had a really difficult time feeling my left hand," said Pierce. "I couldn't even touch or catch the ball." By his own admission, Pierce "wasn't even a factor" in the contest.

With incentive to spare and an injured Pierce, Houston easily defeated Boston, 95-80. Leaving the court long after many in the crowd of 15,445 made for the exits, the Celtics (20-21) heard a chorus of boos as they continued to struggle at home. The Rockets never trailed and established a game-high 19-point advantage early in the fourth. Looking like one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, Houston held Boston to 36 percent from the floor, a dramatic improvement over the 47 percent the Green shot Sunday night.

"It was definitely a pivotal game for us," said Steve Francis (14 points, 6 assists). "I don't care what you're winning by or what you're losing by, you never try and degrade a team -- and that's what we thought they did when they were in Houston. So, we didn't really talk much trash [last night]. We proved it on the court. We were definitely upset about the way things were Sunday. We circled this game."

Added Taylor: "We felt that there was a lot of chirping last Sunday. They were saying a lot of things. We knew we were better [than we showed]. They were talking about the great defense they were playing. Guys on the sidelines were jumping up and down and waving towels and talking about how we couldn't get the ball inside. I guess we showed them something tonight."

If the Rockets had chosen to do some chirping, they certainly had plenty of material to work with from missed layups by Mark Blount to the ease with which Yao Ming got free inside for 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Houston shot 50 percent, including 50 percent (11 for 22) from 3-point range. Francis and Cuttino Mobley found the open man and Houston finished with 24 assists.

The number of possessions in which the Celtics generated good ball movement could be counted on one hand. The drives that were available in Houston disappeared in Boston. Outside shots didn't fall with enough consistency. Only Mike James (20 points) found a sustainable rhythm on offense, going 7 for 11 from the floor, including 4 for 6 from 3-point range.

"They are a great defensive team," said Pierce. "If you don't create opportunities for everybody else then it's going to be tough. They are the best defensive team in the league and if you try to go one on one that's what they want. We just didn't do as good of a job spreading the ball and moving the ball like we did in Houston."

The main reason Boston failed to move the ball as effectively as possible was Pierce. There were times when he was in too much pain to even catch the ball. He got hit on the hand a few times early and suffered the consequences throughout.

The Rockets broke open the game in the third, despite shooting 33 percent for the quarter. By opening the period with a 17-6 run, Houston stretched a 5-point (47-42) halftime advantage to a 16-point (64-48) lead. During the run, Houston hurt Boston from outside with Mobley, Jim Jackson, and Scott Padgett all hitting 3-pointers.

Padgett capped the run with a shot from the arc with 5 minutes 41 seconds remaining in the quarter. That would be Houston's last field goal in the third. But Houston could afford to shoot poorly and go without a field goal for the final 5:40, because Boston's offensive numbers were even worse. They shot just 25 percent in the third (5 for 20). The Rockets needed only five free throws down the stretch in the third to sustain a double-digit lead and enter the fourth ahead, 69-56. With Pierce on the bench icing his left hand, the Rockets finished their rout.

"They just come out and attacked the basket," said Blount (14 points, 9 rebounds). "We didn't do a good job with our defense. We needed to be excellent [defensively] like we were down in Houston, but we just didn't get it done."

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