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CELTICS 100, WIZARDS 89

Celtics stop Wizards

Washington rally denied in fourth

Welcome to the wacky world of the Atlantic Division. If the Boston Celtics defeat the New Jersey Nets tomorrow afternoon, they will walk off the court tied with the future residents of Flatbush for first place.

And they still won't be .500 at home.

They did, however, creep a step closer to that modest goal by defeating the Washington Wizards by a 100-89 score at the Fleet last evening. In their own little bizarro world, the Celtics are now 11-13 at home and 11-10 on the road. They are the only team in the league that is under .500 at home and over .500 on the road.

This was one of those textbook NBA E&F games, as in Ebb and Flow. The Celtics were up by 26 (75-49) with 3:26 remaining in the third quarter. Some 12 minutes and change later, they were clinging to a 4-point lead (87-83).

But as Larry Bird always said, there's no need to worry until you're down 1 without the ball. This one never got that close.

The key baskets were a right-side jumper by Paul Pierce (24, despite 8-for-23 masonry work) that made it 90-83 (2:58) and a left-corner 3-pointer by Ricky Davis (14), who, after receiving the ball, had enough time to recite the Gettysburg Address before launching the ball. That one made it 93-83 with 2:22 to play, and it represented the end of the night's competition.

So begins the post-Vin Baker Era of Celtic basketball.

Coach Jim O'Brien was informed of the "indefinite suspension" being handed out to the troubled veteran forward about 45 minutes before game time. "I'm very disappointed that things have not turned out well for Vin," sighed O'Brien. "It's just a tragic turn of events."

But athletic life must go on, and the Celtics had to turn their attention to beating a Washington team that came here with a 4-18 road record. The Green and White looked pretty good in expanding a 46-37 halftime lead into a lead that peaked at that 75-49 juncture. Included in an 18-3 run that opened the third quarter were five fast-break baskets. Like, Stop The Presses!

"I liked the assists [25 affixed to their 35 baskets], and I thought we challenged the ball well in that stretch," said O'Brien.

But the Wizards were undaunted, chopping the lead to 19 by the end of the third quarter and then making serious inroads as the fourth quarter opened by parlaying an aggressive defense and the eye-opening shooting of subs Steve Blake (17, including five threes) and Christian Laettner, who made his first game back following a five-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy a memorable one with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 25 solid relief minutes. The Washington bench, in fact, outscored the Washington starters, 56-33.

Blake was given 30 minutes in relief of Brevin Knight, which came as no surprise to O'Brien. "[Assistant coach] John Carroll and I were saying this morning how much we think Steve Blake brings to the court," said O'Brien. "He's going to be in this league for a long time."

The one thing that really perturbed O'Brien was his team's atrocious decision-making with the basketball. "We did not understand well enough that they are second in the league in steals for a reason," grumped the mentor, who also allowed that "our turnovers have been the source of great anxiety for all of us."

The Celtics won despite less-than-stellar 41 percent shooting, partly because the Wizards weren't much better (43 percent) and partly because they got off 13 more shots than the visitors. For this they could thank Mark Blount, who tied a career high with 14 rebounds, five of them offensive.

He also added 14 points, meaning this was the latest in a long line of outstanding games for the league's most underappreciated center. "Mark has been fantastic for us," lauded O'Brien. "He has been the anchor of our defense -- by far."

What it all came down to was that this was a game the Celtics simply had to win. So now tomorrow they'll be playing for -- don't laugh -- first place. Hey, it's the Atlantic Division. It is what it is.

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