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CELTICS 84, NETS 80

Celtics trim frayed Nets

Tempers flare in ragged win

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There is one Celtic who plans on getting another crack at the Nets.

"We'll see them again," promised a very agitated Mark Blount after last night's 84-80 victory over New Jersey. Either Blount's math is off -- the two teams have finished the regular-season series -- or he knows something we don't. Like, perhaps, a first-round meeting in the playoffs?

Stranger things have happened.

After last night's dizzying conference results, the Celtics kept ahold of the No. 8 spot, moving 1 1/2 games ahead of the Cavaliers, who lost at San Antonio. The Knicks (1-point winners at home over Portland) and the Heat (winners at home over Chicago) stayed ahead of the Celtics.

But Blount wants the Nets again, in particular center Jason Collins.

With 17 seconds to play, and the Celtics leading by 3, Blount was fouled. Well, that's the New Jersey version. ("It's a man's game. People get fouled," said the Nets' Richard Jefferson, who saw nothing untoward in the apparently unintentional whack in the eye.) Blount was clearly in pain, taking a couple minutes to compose himself. Afterward, he was ultra-hot about it.

In a sanitized version, here's what he said: "He stuck his finger in my eye. Jason Collins. I'm just standing there. Well, the hell with them. That's all right. We'll see them again."

Blount missed both free throws. But in a possession that pretty much summed up New Jersey's evening, Walter McCarty stripped Lucious Harris with 5.9 seconds left as the Nets were going for the tie. The Nets coughed it up 20 times, leading to 30 Boston points; 10 of those points came off 8 Nets turnovers in the fourth quarter.

All in all, this was one that would not have passed muster before any judges looking for aesthetics. Neither team shot 40 percent. The Nets pummeled the Celtics on the glass (56-39). There were 37 turnovers. Paul Pierce played a first half in which he looked as though he had just rolled in from the Bada Bing. Interim coach John Carroll even got into it with his good friend, Nets coach Lawrence Frank.

"Lawrence is a competitor. I'm a competitor," said Carroll, who was irked that Frank was coming too far up the sideline. "We're both professionals. When it's over, it's over. It's an emotional game. I love Lawrence Frank. He's a friend. He'll always be a friend."

With friends like this . . .

The victory was the third in a row for the Celtics and 11th in their last 15 games. Two of those three wins have come against the cryptoNets, who once again were without Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. New Jersey is 1-5 since those two went down with bum left knees -- and 1-6 in its last seven, which is not the way Frank wants to go into the postseason.

Still, the Celtics easily could have let this one slip away. But Blount (16 points, 15 rebounds, 2 blocks) and Ricky Davis (17 points) came up big, atoning for Pierce's horrific start. The Celtics captain missed seven of his first eight shots and was in foul trouble much of the night. He had only 3 points at halftime. But he was there when it mattered, scoring 10 in the fourth. He finished with 21.

"I didn't get a chance to get into any rhythm," said Pierce, who was 8 of 19 in only 33 minutes. "I was a little frustrated with the calls. But after that, I settled down and tried to let the game come to me. And I was able to do that."

In a back-and-forth game that featured 11 ties and 18 lead changes, it was Pierce who drove the final stake through the reeling Nets. With the Celtics trailing, 67-65, Pierce tied the game with 7:17 left on a 19-footer. He then gave Boston the lead for good with a 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim and swished through. On the Celtics' next possession, he knocked down another three. This one was all net. He had scored 8 points in 59 seconds.

"That's our zone offense," cracked Carroll. "Give Paul Pierce the ball. Let him hit two threes."

The Nets stayed close mainly because of Jefferson (24 points) and Rodney Rogers (16 points, 15 rebounds, 7 turnovers) but could not make a shot when it mattered. The last indignity came after Blount's free throw misses. Jefferson ran down the rebound and got the ball to Harris, who promptly lost it to McCarty. The Celtics settled it with free throws.

"We control our fate now," Pierce said. "It's all about whether we want it bad enough. No one's made summer plans yet. At least I haven't."

Blount has. He's planning on at least one more visit here.

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