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LAKERS 104, CELTICS 95

Celtics foul up and fall to Lakers

LOS ANGELES -- Coach Doc Rivers said the playoff push for the Celtics started last night against the Lakers. The players were talking a lot about winning the Atlantic Division.

But instead of starting the second half of the season on a positive note, the Celtics got a reminder to not get ahead of themselves, courtesy of the Lakers.

Boston led after each of the first three quarters, but the Lakers went ahead early in the fourth on a foul shot by Brian Grant and never looked back. They went on to a 104-95 victory at the Staples Center that dropped the Celtics back to .500 at 27-27.

The Lakers extended their lead with an 18-8 run capped by a basket only Kobe Bryant could make. Bryant gave the Lakers their first double-digit advantage, 94-84, by driving baseline for a reverse layup with 3:43 remaining. Ricky Davis dived in vain after Bryant, and Mark Blount made a feeble attempt to swat the ball away from the rim. The energy and aggressiveness that had marked the Celtics' early play was gone, and so was their shot at victory.

"I thought they basically destroyed us in the hustle department," said Rivers. "They had 21 offensive rebounds. They had more steals. They got every big loose ball down the stretch. You're not going to win a lot of games that way.

"Foul trouble hurt us bad. It really got Paul [Pierce] out of synch, for the most part. That's why it's a team game. When you have key players -- and we had a couple of them -- get in foul trouble, you still as a team have to search and find a way to win and we didn't do that."

Tony Allen, who would foul out in only eight minutes of play, found himself in trouble with two personals barely two minutes into the game. That initially appeared to help the Celtics, because when Davis replaced him in the first quarter, he made it his personal mission to shut down Bryant and supplement the offense provided by Pierce and Gary Payton.

It was fitting that Boston entered halftime ahead, 51-47, thanks to a pair of free throws and some disruptive defense by Davis. After hitting from the line, Davis forced Bryant to commit a turnover. While the Lakers got the ball back, they didn't have enough time to get off a good shot before the buzzer. On more than one occasion in the first half, Chris Mihm was trying to pass to Bryant on the wing, looking for any opening between the outstretched arms of Davis. No such luck. Bryant did not record his first field goal (a fast-break dunk) until there was 3:23 left in the first quarter.

Boston really suffered with foul trouble when Pierce picked up his third personal late in the second quarter. And the Lakers found themselves without starting point guard Chucky Atkins for most of the first half. Atkins picked up his second foul early in the first, returned for five seconds, and picked up his third.

Although the Lakers fell behind by as many as 8 points (27-19) in the first period and 7 in the second, a few quick runs and some timely 3-pointers kept the Celtics from establishing more commanding leads.

Pierce picked up his fourth personal with 6:03 left and exited, but Boston was able to maintain a slight advantage, finishing the period ahead, 74-72. The Celtics actually stretched their lead to 9 twice in the third. But sitting on the bench took Pierce out of his rhythm and clearly hurt his play in the fourth as he lost patience on offense and committed a pair of costly turnovers.

"I'm going to take full responsibility for that loss," said Pierce (25 points). "I think I pressed a little bit too much in the fourth quarter from sitting so much with the frustration from the calls."

A 3-point play by Lamar Odom and 3-pointers by Jumaine Jones and Luke Walton allowed the Lakers to close the quarter with a 9-4 run.

"We gave it away," said Davis (25 points). "Their guys hit some key 3-pointers late in the third quarter and that kind of hurt us. They got momentum and we couldn't get it back."

Odom opened the quarter with a layup that tied the game, 74-74, then pushed the home team ahead, 85-78, with a layup. Boston would cut the deficit to 4 but come no closer down the stretch.

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