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BUCKS 106, CELTICS 104

Celtics buckle under

Losing ways follow them back home

The last time the Celtics walked off the FleetCenter floor with a win, Jim O'Brien was their coach, Mike James was their point guard, the Patriots were merely the AFC champions, and Howard Dean was still a viable presidential candidate. Yup, that long ago.

The Celtics returned to their home habitat last night after their Ship of Fools, 19-day road misadventures and dropped a tough-to-swallow, 106-104 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. In case you're counting at home, that makes seven straight losses, the most since Rick Pitino prowled the sideline during a 10-game free fall in March-April 2000. It's also 13 losses in 14 games, resulting in the Celtics now being 13 games under .500.

Hey, look at it this way: at least they didn't lose any ground to the Nets.

It won't be too long before we start measuring losses in terms of lottery positioning. (Those games with Atlanta and Washington now take on added importance.) Maybe that's why M.L. Carr was in attendance; he's the acknowledged master at driving a team to Secaucus with the best odds.

Interim coach John Carroll revamped his starting lineup, giving rookie Brandon Hunter his first NBA start as well as adding new point guard Chucky Atkins and Jiri Welsch into the mix. Hunter was terrific (17 points, nine rebounds) and Atkins had 14 points and eight assists in a season-high 43 minutes in his Boston debut. Carroll said he was "overwhelmed" by the team's effort and that he felt the team deserved to win.

But the Celtics were undone by hideous free throw shooting (22 of 39) as well as by allowing a team to score 100 or more points for the sixth straight game.

"I don't know how you could critically analyze this game beyond the free throw shooting," Carroll said. "[The misses] were a killer."

The smallish crowd of 13,768, the seventh crowd of fewer than 14,000 this season, almost went home happy, but Walter McCarty's turnaround prayer from 30 feet was launched just after the final horn sounded. There was really no debate, although the referees went to instant replay for verification as Carroll stood by, wistfully. "I was ready to beg for anything," the coach said.

The Celtics' last win at the FleetCenter was Jan. 23 against the Wizards. That was O'Brien's Fleet finale. Since then, the Celtics are 0-5 at the place they once called The Jungle and, over the season, are 11-18. They've won once since that Jan. 23 game -- a blowout in Philadelphia.

Last night, they got a Bucks team that had played (and lost) the night before and was without rocket rookie point guard T.J. Ford (bruised spinal cord). The Bucks lost Joe Smith to a sprained left ankle midway through the first quarter; he left the building on crutches. New Buck Keith Van Horn, who had been averaging 20.3 points, managed just 4 points on 2-of-10 shooting.

Boston got 21 from a foul-plagued Paul Pierce and Mark Blount had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Milwaukee was led by Michael Redd (26) while Desmond Mason (21) and Toni Kukoc (18) also had a hand in the outcome. The Bucks are 20-2 in games in which they shoot 45 percent or better; they shot 46.3 percent last night.

The Celtics threw a 40-point first quarter at the Bucks (their best scoring quarter of the season) and led by 12. By halftime, the Celtics had gone through another lull and the game was tied at 60. It was knotted at 84-84 after three and, for the 20th and final time, at 100-100 with 2:29 left. Blount then completed a 3-point play to give the Celtics a 101-100 lead.

Milwaukee needed 23 seconds to take the lead for good, with Van Horn's second-chance hoop, an across-the-lane swooper. The Bucks then made it 104-101 with 92 seconds left on a Damon Jones jumper and 106-101 on a Redd layup with 69 seconds left. Ricky Davis (9 points, 8 rebounds) then made it 106-103 with a layup and was then fouled with 28.2 seconds left. He missed one. Mason missed a trey from the left corner and the Celtics got the ball back with 4.4 seconds left.

The Bucks defended it well, leaving nothing except for McCarty's wild heave that somehow went through. But everyone knew it had been too late. Replays confirmed that sad fact, not to mention the all-too-familiar depressing result.

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