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CELTICS 92, BULLS 83

Late stop sign posted by Celtics

Danny Ainge, never a candidate for the All-Defensive team, stopped by the Celtics' morning shootaround yesterday and offered some advice to his team. As in, "Uh, guys, you know what Doc has been saying about defense? He's right. You gotta play it."

Maybe it took another voice for the concept to register among the heretofore defensively challenged Celtics, because Rivers has been saying it for some time. Or, as Paul Pierce put it, "Defense has been beaten into our heads the last few weeks. We listened to what [Ainge] said and it showed."

The Celtics put a clamp on the Bulls over the final 18 minutes last night and took a 92-83 decision over a team that hadn't lost since Jan. 3. Over that 18 minutes, the Celtics outscored the Bulls, 35-17, and held them to five field goals, all but one by Eddy Curry. In the fourth quarter alone, the Bulls scored 14 points, were 5 for 22 from the field, and were 1 for 16 from the field when someone other than Curry took a shot.

Yes, it was great to see yet another coming-out party for Al Jefferson, who had career highs in points (17) and minutes (29) to go along with 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 0 turnovers. Yes, it was great to see 28 points from Pierce. The Celtics even survived a truly hideous outing from Mark Blount (0 points, 0 rebounds in 22 minutes) against a team that likes to play inside.

The reason is there for all to see: They played defense when it mattered and ignored the fact that they didn't shoot well (40.7 percent), which has always led to defensive problems in the past.

"It was great," Rivers said. "We did all the things that we said we should be doing. If we can continue to play defense like that, our offense will be able to take care of itself."

The victory improved the Celtics' record to 18-20; they now share first place in the vaunted Atlantic Division with Philadelphia. And with roadies against the Nets, Hawks, and Bobcats coming up, there's a chance for a little spurt. The Celtics are starting to establish themselves at home; last night was their 10th FleetCenter win in the last 12 games. The road has been a killer lately. The Celtics have dropped seven straight away from home since a victory in Cleveland Dec. 18.

The Bulls, meanwhile, had merely been one of the NBA's ultrahot teams everywhere for the last month. They had won seven straight and 13 of 16 going into last night's game. They now have held opponents to fewer than 100 points in 23 straight games, and the Celtics' poor shooting last night won't hurt Chicago's status as the No. 1 team in the league in defensive field goal percentage. The Bulls looked every bit the part through the first half of the third quarter, when two Kirk Hinrich jumpers capped a 17-5 run and gave Chicago a 66-57 lead.

That is when the Celtics made their stand, although it wasn't immediately evident. But over the final 6:15 of the third quarter, the Bulls were 0 for 8 from the field and managed 3 points. Nonetheless, they still led, 69-68, entering the fourth and, with Curry (26 points) having his way, it was still a Chicago lead, 75-74, when Jefferson went to the line.

There was a delay before the shots, as Jefferson was accidentally knocked down by Curry after he, Jefferson, had been fouled by Tyson Chandler. The Celtics called a 20-second timeout, the team doctor and trainer made their way out to examine the prize rook, and then Jefferson got up, made two free throws, and, with 7:56 to play, the Celtics never trailed again.

Jefferson and Pierce each had 8 points and four rebounds in the fourth, which saw the Celtics shoot 53.8 percent and dominate the glass, 15-9. The non-Curry Bulls disappeared. Hinrich, a Celtic killer in Chicago, was 0 for 7. Ben Gordon, who had won the Bulls' previous game on a floater with 0.1 seconds to play, played two minutes and missed his only shot. Luol Deng bricked 3 of 4.

"I think everyone is frustrated by the way we played, but give the Celtics credit," said Hinrich (12 points). "We just were a little too sloppy in the fourth quarter."

Said Bulls coach Scott Skiles, "We just had trouble putting the ball in the hole."

You think? How does two baskets in the final 9:32 sound? Or one basket in a stretch of 8:38? That won't cut it on too many nights. Maybe it was bad shooting. Maybe it was the Celtics finally doing the dirty work on defense.

While the Celtics were suffocating the Bulls, Jefferson had 6 points in a 12-2 run that gave Boston an 84-77 lead with 5:05 to play. Chicago got back to 84-80 with 3:24 left, but 6 straight Celtics points, all from Pierce, salted it away.

"They've had our number as of late, so we wanted to come in and put it to them," Pierce said. "We don't feel like we should lose to them. We know they're an improved team, but so are we." 

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