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CELTICS 108, HORNETS 90

Payton out, but Celtics reel one in

Gary Payton knows the importance of timing. For instance, the right pass at the right moment can make all the difference. So while Payton ended his consecutive-games streak at 305 last night -- missing the Celtics-Hornets contest with a strained left hamstring -- it should come as no surprise that he did so with perfect timing.

With or without Payton, the Celtics were heavily favored against a team with the worst record in the league at 2-26. After a horrid first half, the Celtics adjusted to life without Payton, surging ahead in the third quarter on their way to a 108-90 victory.

Payton said he "most likely" would be back on the floor for tomorrow night's game against Golden State. But the decision will rest with the coaches and medical staff as well. During a pregame workout last night, it was obvious Payton couldn't explode off his injured leg and couldn't even walk normally. Still, it apparently took a while for reality to set in for Payton.

"Gary went up until me saying, `You can't play,' to thinking he was playing," said coach Doc Rivers. "When we were in our meeting, he walks in with his uniform on, thinking he's going to play. I don't think he's really pleased with the [decision]. At the end of the day, I'm looking at him walk."

According to Rivers, an MRI showed something that wasn't bad but needed to be taken care of. The test results helped convince Rivers that rest was the right course of action.

"I'm OK," said Payton. "I'm OK. They're just being cautious. They just wanted me to rest it for one more day. It was tough, but everybody decided it was better to take one day and do it like we did it, rather than get hurt some more and having to take a month off."

A month without Payton would be disastrous for the Celtics, especially if they play as they did in the first half, which ended in a 46-46 tie. The Celtics committed 16 turnovers, which the Hornets converted into 17 points. The Celtics didn't move the ball and didn't exercise wise shot selection. They looked lost and out of synch, even against a team that has just one road win this year.

"We kept them in the game because we were turning the ball over," said Paul Pierce, who had his fourth career triple-double (19 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds). "I think that was just the initial reaction from not having Gary out there for the first time this year. We were a little bit stagnant, a little bit confused on offense. In the second half, we were able to settle down and really get things going.

"I just wanted to try to make up for some of the things we didn't have with Gary not being out there. I didn't want to put pressure on myself, going out there thinking I've got to score every time down the court. I just wanted to play a good all-around game and make sure everybody was involved."

A pair of runs in the third quarter pushed the Celtics toward victory. They broke a 48-48 tie with a 14-4 run started with a driving dunk by Raef LaFrentz and capped by a 3-pointer from Pierce. They closed the period with a 15-2 run that included an 8-footer from Ricky Davis and a pair of 3-pointers by Walter McCarty. Keeping turnovers down, hitting the glass a little harder, and going 12 for 12 from the line made all the difference as the Celtics outscored the Hornets, 36-19, in the third.

Boston entered the fourth ahead, 82-65, and led by as many as 24 in the final period. Rivers let the reserves and younger players log extra time in the quarter, and it was not a bad idea since Payton may miss more games.

Meanwhile, New Orleans coach Byron Scott was hoping his team would step up, but it collapsed in the second half.

"For some reason, we got satisfied [with a tie at halftime]," said Scott. "We just folded like a cheap suit. Our mental toughness was challenged and we just backed away. We played like crap in the second. I want a bunch of pit bulls. I don't want a bunch of Chihuahuas. Right now, we have a bunch of Chihuahuas in there. We're not tough enough."

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