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CELTICS 103, RAPTORS 98

Celtics clinch division

Atlantic a wrap with win over the Raptors

TORONTO -- When the final horn sounded, and Doc Rivers had high-fived everyone within striking distance, this is where the Celtics found themselves after last night's 103-98 victory over Toronto.

* They are the champions of the Atlantic Division and you know what? They think it's a big deal and they have the T-shirt (courtesy of Reebok) to prove it.

* They will be the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, and thus will play the No. 6 seed. The above two developments were ensured not only by Boston's win, but by the Sixers' loss to the resurgent Nets.

* In all likelihood, we're looking at a Boston-Indiana first-round series for the third straight season. (Yup, the fans can start counting when Jermaine O'Neal goes to the line.) The Celtics need only one win or one Pacers loss to clinch the home-court advantage in the first round. The Pacers need one win, or one Philadelphia loss, to claim the No. 6 position.

As the Celtics cleared out of the locker room in the Air Canada Centre, Raef LaFrentz held his "Division Champion" shirt with all the care of a newborn. Even though he admitted it wasn't a "huge accomplishment," it was, nonetheless, a division title. "And," LaFrentz noted, "you can only win the division you're put in. It feels good. With the exception of Gary [Payton], no one on this team has ever been on a division champion. I got close in Dallas, but San Antonio was always in the way. It's big."

The Celtics last won the Atlantic Division in 1992, Larry Bird's swan-song season. All in all, the franchise has won 25 division championships.

There are, of course, two extra divisions this season, but that wasn't the math that concerned the Celtics. They wanted one more win to clinch the division on their terms, not to have to hope for a Nets victory in the Meadowlands (which was a foregone conclusion in that game by halftime). This was accomplished by a 13-4 run over the final 3:59 of the third period, giving them a 9-point lead heading into the fourth.

The lead swelled to 14 with 9:23 left, but the Raptors fought back with 11 unanswered points to make a game of it. It was a 2-point game (98-96) with 1:55 left, but Paul Pierce (25 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals) closed the deal by making five of six free throws. It also didn't hurt that the Raptors' offense went into seizure on their final two possessions.

"We knew going in that we controlled our own destiny if we just got a win," Pierce said, wearing his championship T-shirt. "But we still have a lot to play for. It doesn't stop here."

It's possible the Celtics could claim the home-court advantage in the first round without even playing. Indiana is in Orlando tonight -- and a Pacers loss would achieve the same goal as a Boston win tomorrow night in Cleveland.

"We have a two-game lead," Rivers said. "So we need to win one more, or Indiana needs to lose one. We know what's in front of us. Home court is vital. It really is. You know, everyone made fun of the Atlantic Division, but there's a chance that three teams from our division can get in. I think that's pretty impressive."

And . . . they all might get in with records over .500. Amazing.

The Celtics will carry a four-game winning streak into the game in Cleveland and also have won six of their last seven. The last four wins have all been nail-biters and last night was no exception. Toronto led by 6 after one, made 3 of 20 shots in the second quarter, and still led at the half. Pierce let the fellows know at halftime that whatever they were doing had to change.

"I was trying to tell the guys what was on the line," he said. "Who cares what Philly does?"

The game turned after a 3-point play by Jalen Rose (31 points) with 3:59 left in the third to tie the game at 69-69. Pierce then found Payton for a layup to start a quick 7-1 run. Pierce then finished off a 13-2 run with a 3-point play with 29.2 seconds left in the period, giving the Celtics an 82-71 lead. Two free throws by Chris Bosh (26 points) made it 82-73 heading into the fourth.

The Raptors are 11-33 when trailing after three for a reason. Rose and Morris Peterson (18 points) made things interesting in the fourth, but Ricky Davis (13) hit a big jumper to stop the aforementioned 11-0 Toronto run and, after a Bosh miss, Pierce added two free throws. And when Toronto got back within 2 points, Rose, who had trouble with the refs all game long (and picked up a technical), bumped Pierce on the perimeter, sending the Celtics captain to the line.

Pierce made them both with 1:47 to play and the Raptors never made another basket the rest of the way.


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