Once again down the stretch, there was the sound of 15,000 people squirming in their seats. The Celtics had led the hottest team in basketball from the first quarter last night. They'd been up by 22 points with 11:08 to play. And now, with the spread down to 10, everybody was thinking the same thing: Can these guys blow it again? "I'm sure the whole crowd did," said coach Doc Rivers. "Tommy [Heinsohn] probably did, too."
Not this time. This time, the Celtics hung in, stifled Seattle for the final five minutes, and came away with a satisfying (and surprising) 102-83 victory before 15,410 at the FleetCenter.
"Very, very good win, because that's a good basketball team," said Rivers, after his mercurial squad had stopped the Sonics' winning streak at nine with its best all-around effort of the young season.
The Celtics not only threw a blanket over Seattle's white-hot shooters, who made just 36 percent from the floor and under 22 percent from 3-point range, they also put six men in double figures. And the chief bombardier was Ricky Davis, who came off the bench like a cornrowed Havlicek to score 25 points.
"Hopefully that will be the [role], me coming in and being the sixth man," said Davis, who was 10 for 14 from the floor and 4 for 5 on 3-pointers.
Which is exactly what Rivers was thinking when he put Jiri Welsch (12 points and 8 rebounds) into the starting lineup for the first time this year, hoping Welsch would feel less pressure to produce. "It was my miscalculation on putting Jiri with that second unit that was so young," said Rivers. "That's asking too much of him."
What Rivers asked Davis to be was Vinnie Johnson. "Just go for it," the coach told him -- and Davis wasn't bashful. He scored two baskets within 37 seconds to double the lead to 8 just before halftime, then hit three jumpers -- from 23, 19, and 12 feet -- in the final 1:49 of the third quarter to put Boston ahead, 75-58.
That took the scoring load off Paul Pierce, who still managed 17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and a couple of steals in his 42 minutes. Added to a dozen points apiece from Gary Payton and Mark Blount and 11 from Raef LaFrentz, that was more than enough production. In fact, Boston's field goal percentage (56.9) was its third highest in the last five years.
The question going in was whether the Celtics could keep up with a Seattle team that was averaging more than 100 points a game and was off to its best start (9-1) in 11 years.
"They're an explosive team," said Pierce. "If you allow them to go out and shoot 3-pointers, they can blow you out in a hurry. We did a good job of getting up in their faces."
The plan, Rivers said, was to take away the threes, force the Sonics to work the clock, push the ball up the floor, and keep old friend Danny Fortson (who ended up fouling out) from lighting a fire under his mates. "We focused on him," said Rivers. "He's their energy guy."
Once Boston held the visitors to 14 points in the first quarter and took a 10-point lead, the hosts were on their way. "Doc had his boys ready," said Seattle coach Nate McMillan. "They earned the game. They beat us at the game we have had success with. Tonight, they were better."
The question, as it has been most nights, was whether Doc's boys could close the deal. For several queasy minutes in the fourth quarter, the Celtics didn't manage a shot and committed three offensive fouls. And what had been a comfy 80-58 cushion had dwindled to 81-71. "They were on the run," said Rivers, "and we were walking it."
A 20-foot fadeaway by Pierce got Boston moving again. Then, with the lead still at 10 with six minutes to go, Payton grabbed a rebound and fired it upcourt to Davis for a killer three that made it 87-74.
"Huge play," declared Rivers. "That allowed us to exhale. You knew that we were going to get hesitant at some point in the fourth, just because of the past. So it was good to exorcise that away from us."
This is a team that has little history together, so memories of recent failures haunt these Celtics like leftover Halloween hobgoblins. This is a team that is about to play nine of its next 12 on the road, including five on the hazardous Left Coast. What they wanted, what they needed, was to play 48 solid minutes against a high-stepping team and come out high-fiving. "It's a win," Rivers testified. "I'll take it."