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CELTICS 80, WOLVES 77

Celtics take best shot, surprise Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS -- This is the week that is. It is full of potholes, land mines, sinkholes, and quicksand. It's a week that features little rest, lots of travel, and some big-time opponents. It will go a long way toward determining if the Celtics somehow can pull themselves out of their February abyss and into the playoffs in late April.

Last night, in the land of 10,000 lakes and 17,661 loons at the Target Center, the Celtics took a major step in that direction. They won their fifth straight game (and fourth straight here) by outlasting the first-place Timberwolves, 80-77. They won despite a 4-for-21 shooting night by Paul Pierce, another night of getting crunched on the glass, and shooting a lusty 33.3 percent against the top shooting team in the league.

They rallied from a 13-point hole in the third quarter and an 8-point deficit in the fourth. They held the Timberwolves, who entered shooting 47 percent, to a measly 35.9 percent. They missed 14 straight shots in an 11-point first quarter and missed 13 of 14 during a stretch in the third. They won in part because Jiri Welsch, the undeniable jewel of Danny Ainge's acquisitions, scored 14 of his 18 points in the fourth to take over the game -- while the Timberwolves stood around in a this-can't-be-happening-to-us funk.

"We should have gone out and beaten up on this team," moaned Wolves center Michael Olowokandi. "If we're talking about contending for a championship or trying to make a run in the postseason, this is the type of team we need to beat."

He's right. But the converse is true as well. The dense-pack Wolves are exactly the type of team the Celtics needed to beat after a week of wins over lesser lights with stars out injured. No one was making that case last night (although the Wolves were without the Mayor, Fred Hoiberg). This qualifies as a win with a capital W, however unseemly it looked.

"I've been around here for a while," interim coach John Carroll said, "and we've been able to do that [win ugly] by grinding it out. This team has shown a lot of resolve in the last week."

Asked if he was waiting for someone such as Welsch to do something offensively, Carroll said, "I've been doing that for the last four or five weeks. Waiting and hoping. When you're a dead man walking, that's what you do. You wait and you hope."

It looked to one and all for most of the game that Carroll would have to wait until tomorrow night in New York for his next win. Even though the Wolves were also shooting terribly, they had enough -- barely -- to lead for most of the game. They failed to capitalize on Boston's brutal drought in the first quarter (7:34 without a point) because they scored only 10 points in that same span and only led, 14-11, after one. "It should have been over right there," sighed Wolves coach Flip Saunders. "We should have been up big."

They were up big in the third, using a 19-4 run to turn a 41-39 deficit into a 58-45 lead. But Welsch (0 for 3 in the first half) and Chris Mihm each had 4 as the Celtics closed the third with an important 8-0 run, holding Minnesota pointless for the final 3:48. That turned out to be significant, for the deficit was a mere 5 points entering the fourth.

The Wolves got the lead back to 8 (64-56 with 9:38 to play) when it became Jiri Time. Welsch already had made a trey in the quarter (Boston's only points in a quarter-opening 6-3 run by Minnesota) and said he felt that shot got him going. Pierce started a pivotal 16-2 run with a foul line fallaway and Marcus Banks then stole the ball from Troy Hudson and went in for a reverse dunk.

Minnesota would go an astonishing 5 minutes 41 seconds and score only 2 points. We're not talking Toronto here. Minnesota leads the league in shooting percentage, is ninth in scoring, and had scored 121 and 109 points in its last two games. The Celtics credited their defense.

"Our defense has gone to a whole new level," Pierce said. "It's done that in the past two weeks and that's what is going to win for us. It shows if you play defense at a high level, and you grind it out, anything can happen."

The Boston burst -- Welsch had 7 in the run -- gave the Celtics a 72-66 lead with 4:10 left. Minnesota closed to within 74-72 and missed a chance to tie it. Welsch, who shook off an elbow in the face in the first half (from whom, he does not know), rebounded Hudson's miss and went coast-to-coast for a dunk. The Celtics then settled things at the line and survived a trey attempt at the buzzer by Sam Cassell to secure the most implausible of victories.

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