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ROCKETS 97, CELTICS 94

Celtics are just a little bit amiss

Ricky Davis relegated Paul Pierce to a supporting role and forced Tracy McGrady into service as a defensive stopper in the fourth quarter. He was that hot. Davis knocked down his first seven shots in the period, abusing Houston guard David Wesley, who served as his mentor when the two played in Charlotte. Needing one more basket to take the lead with less than a minute left, Celtics coach Doc Rivers again called on Davis. There wasn't a moment of debate. Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy countered by placing McGrady on Davis.

With 17.8 seconds remaining, Davis launched an 18-footer that looked just like all of his other successful attempts. But an outstretched McGrady, bad back and all, proved a formidable obstacle. The shot missed the mark. The Celtics lost their best chance to take the lead, and dropped a 97-94 decision to the Rockets last night at the FleetCenter. Boston also fell a half-game behind Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division.

"He was rolling," said McGrady. "I took on the challenge to try to make him take a tough jumper. I think I affected his shot a little bit with my long arms."

McGrady knows exactly what it feels like to find the zone as a scorer. And there was no doubt Davis had entered the zone, scoring 17 of his game-high 24 points in the final period. Davis started with a 3-point play, stopping an 11-point run by Jon Barry (a 22-footer plus three straight 3-pointers) that turned a 2-point Boston deficit into a 10-point gap in less than two minutes. Behind jumpers from Davis, the Celtics rallied, setting the stage for the real drama.

Boston trailed, 90-88, when Davis nailed a 14-footer, tying the game with 1:13 left. Yao Ming responded with a 13-footer. Davis tied the game again when he dropped a 15-footer with 44 seconds remaining. Once Bobby Sura made just one of two free throws, Davis earned an ill-fated shot to push Boston ahead.

"You ride the hot hand," said Rivers. "It's funny, though, if it wasn't Ricky, you probably go to Paul. But Ricky's a bona fide scorer in his own right, so you felt comfortable with that. But honestly, if it had been someone else with the hot hand, I probably would have gone away from him on that last play. But when you've got a guy like Ricky or Paul, either one of them hot, you just stay with those guys. That was an easy decision."

Pierce not only agreed with the decision, he enjoyed watching Davis work.

"It's fun to be on the other side of the spectrum, especially in the fourth quarter," said Pierce (22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists). "When you get it going, I know the feeling.

"[Davis] kept saying, `Paul, come on, man.' And I said, `No, you're the high man. We're riding you out. Take this game.' He carried us. We just didn't help him out by getting stops."

It wasn't a question of overall shooting (49 percent for Boston, 47 percent for Houston), but a matter of McGrady, Yao & and Co. making shots at opportune times. The Rockets never allowed the Celtics a second-half lead larger than 6, and that came with Yao benched by foul trouble. Boston never held an advantage in the fourth.

The momentum had already shifted in the Celtics' favor before Yao picked up his fourth foul with 6:03 remaining in the third quarter. When Yao took a seat, Boston was within 2 (57-55). With Yao absent, Boston surged ahead for the first time, continuing a 12-0 run that Mark Blount capped with a 19-footer. The basket gave Boston a 63-57 edge with 4:23 left in the third. Without Yao to contend with, Blount scored 10 of his 14 points in the quarter.

But the Celtics could not sustain it. Shortly before they took their largest lead, Pierce received his fourth personal and left the game in favor of Davis.

"I thought Pierce's fourth was a critical turning point in the game, as were Yao's fouls," said Van Gundy. "I thought foul trouble was how both teams were making moves."

The Celtics actually made their first significant run when Yao picked up his third personal with 2:02 left in the first half. Boston closed with 9-2 spurt and entered halftime behind, 49-40, after being down by as many as 16 (47-31) a few minutes earlier. The home team carried momentum into the third but could not finish the game as strongly as it finished the half.

"Houston converted in the most important moments," said Jiri Welsch. "We came down and missed the shot. They came down and made the shot. The game came down to a few final possessions and they were just better."

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