EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Hot. Hotter. Hottest.
Until tipoff yesterday afternoon, the Celtics seemed hot, gathering momentum for the postseason after two straight wins. Then it became apparent that only coach Doc Rivers was truly hot (and bothered) as he earned his second ejection of the season just 1 minute 41 seconds into the game for arguing a call. While Rivers felt his early exit "hurt the team," the blame really rested with Boston's lack of defense and abundance of turnovers (22).
With Vince Carter and Jason Kidd taking full advantage, the Nets led by as many as 27 points before defeating the Celtics, 99-86, at
But Carter proved hottest of all, scoring 24 of his season-high 45 points in the first quarter. It was the biggest single-quarter output by a player this season.
"I didn't [know I was close to 50] until somebody told me," said the shooting guard. "And that's when it got messed up. They told me going into the fourth quarter, and then I tried too hard."
Still, Carter's performance overshadowed the return of Antoine Walker from a bruised left knee. Walker's minutes were limited early by foul trouble, not his knee. But, there was still pain for the Celtics -- the kind that comes with frustration, embarrassment, and disappointment. The Celtics squandered an opportunity to take another step closer to the Atlantic Division title. Tuesday night's nationally televised matchup with Philadelphia looms even larger with two games separating them.
The frustration boiled over early in the fourth as Walker picked up a technical with 7:03 remaining. Carter converted the free throw. By that time, Celtics assistant Tony Brown began inserting the reserves for the rest of the game.
Walker was too upset to offer a comment about the game. The rest of the Celtics were also unable to explain their poor performance.
"We're making it hard for ourselves," said Gary Payton. "We should be playing basketball, and right now, we're really not. We're just going to have to make a conscious effort to say this is an emergency. I hope we get there because we can easily be in that seventh or eighth spot. We've got our destiny in our hands. All we've got to do is win basketball games."
With his best offensive performance of the season, Carter made that a much tougher task. While Carter hit shots that ranged from improbable to impossible, the Celtics could only shake their heads in disbelief. Paul Pierce, Ricky Davis, and Delonte West looked helpless trying to stop Carter.
Carter went 9 for 10 in the first, including 5 for 5 from 3-point range. He single-handedly outscored the Celtics, 24-19.
Late in the third, Carter bobbled a pass from Kidd (17 assists), tossed up a shot essentially from underneath the backboard -- back to the basket -- and it went in. It was just that kind of afternoon for the All-Star.
The Nets led by as many as 20 points in the first and finished the quarter ahead, 37-19. That proved too large a deficit to rally from, especially on the road. Boston never came closer than 8 points in the first half and 11 in the second half.
"In the second half, there were a couple of situations where we could have gotten under 10 and I thought some of our offensive decisions at that time hurt us a little bit," said Brown, who took over for Rivers. "We tried to make something happen that wasn't there. A couple situations like that really cost us and gave them enough cushion to open the lead again."
Behind a 14-2 run, Boston cut its deficit to 8 points (52-44) when Payton hit a 12-footer with 21.6 seconds remaining in the second quarter. But then, the Celtics gave Carter an easy look on a 3-pointer and the shot, of course, went in, giving the Nets a 55-44 advantage at halftime.
Boston had its best chance to rally in the third quarter after a 3-point play by Pierce brought the team back within 11 (64-53). But the Nets staged an 11-2 run near the end of the third and finished the quarter ahead, 85-63. In the fourth, the Celtics knew their fate had effectively been sealed in the first.
"I try to tell these guys there's something about these 1 p.m. games," said Pierce. "In the playoffs, there's going to be games where we're going to have to play afternoon games and we've got to be ready from the jump . . . Everybody has bad days. And, obviously, today was a bad day for us."