The Celtics left the court to a standing ovation, the sellout crowd of 18,624 at the FleetCenter celebrating a win last night that improved the home team's playoff hopes and eased the sting of past playoff disappointments. With the absence of Jason Kidd (left knee bone bruise) and Kenyon Martin (left knee tendinitis), Boston's dismantling of New Jersey, 102-93, will inevitably carry an asterisk. But not where it matters most: in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Celtics saw an opportunity and took advantage, showing intensity on both ends, particularly when it came to crashing the boards and getting to the foul line. Boston outrebounded New Jersey, 45-36, and made 33 trips to the line compared with 19 for Richard Jefferson and Co. Both teams shot 44 percent and committed 11 turnovers. The Nets did hold an advantage in 3-point shooting, going 10 for 25, and ball movement, finishing with 30 assists.
With the win, and a loss by Cleveland, Boston (32-40) finished the night in eighth place by a half-game. The Celtics also snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Nets, including last season's playoff sweep. It is hard to forget New Jersey forced Boston out of the postseason the last two years. And entering last night, the Nets had won 12 of their last 13 meetings with the Celtics. But postgame, the Celtics found themselves thinking more about the future than anything else.
"The playoffs were on the line," said Paul Pierce, who scored 14 of his 34 points in the first quarter. "This win was important for us. We had a week off. We had lost two in a row. I probably would have come out [with a lot of intensity] regardless of who we played, just for the simple fact that we were a half-game out of eighth place. We needed a win and we got it."
Led by Pierce, Boston was a determined team that would not be denied when it took the floor. That determination was rewarded as the Celtics entered halftime ahead, 53-46, after leading by as many as 11 points early in the second quarter.
If one point was made clear during the first quarter, it was that the Celtics were more than ready and willing to play with postseason intensity. That showed most noticeably on the glass, where Boston finished the game with 20 second-chance points off 14 offensive rebounds.
But far more impressive than the Celtics' rebounding in the first quarter was the scoring of Pierce. During the quarter, it seemed as if Pierce would try to singlehandedly bring home a win. He did not miss a field goal attempt in the first, going 6 for 6. Interim head coach John Carroll commented that Pierce simply had "that look" in the first, the one that says "just give me the ball."
"I did a very poor job with our game plan against Paul Pierce," said New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank. "He was able to get where he wanted to go and I failed to adjust, it was a very poor job on my part. That really hurt us on the offensive boards and we just had a hard time containing penetration and just couldn't get the job done."
With Pierce on the bench, Boston opened the second with a 7-0 run, taking a 32-23 lead when Ricky Davis drove to the basket for a layup with 10:38 remaining in the quarter. The Celtics' determination also served them well as they withstood a 12-3 run later in the quarter. The Nets closed within 2 points (43-41) when Kerry Kittles scored on the break, but the visitors never regained the lead. Boston responded with a 10-3 run and led, 53-44, with a little more than a minute left in the half.
In the third quarter, the game had all the makings of a blowout, though the Celtics lost some of their intensity down the stretch and finished the quarter with an 82-70 advantage. Boston led by as many as 20 points (76-56) when Jiri Welsch made a layup with 4:12 to go in the quarter. The basket capped a 20-4 run, which featured contributions from Welsch (11 points, 9 rebounds), Chucky Atkins (17 points, 6 assists), Walter McCarty (15 points), and Pierce. New Jersey came back with an 11-1 run capped by a 3-pointer from Rodney Rogers with 1:59 to go in the third. Former Celtic Rogers finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Jefferson scored a team-high 28 points.
But the Nets could not cut their deficit to fewer than 10 points. And the same was true until almost the end of the fourth, as the Celtics eased their way to a victory.
"The biggest thing that we thought of with Jason and Kenyon out was that their depth was terribly negated," said Carroll. "They've got Lucious [Harris] and Rodney [typically] coming off the bench . . . When you can insert those guys in the starting lineup and be able to play as productive as they play, it's a tough team to guard. But I thought we could wear them down a little bit."