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CELTICS 101, HORNETS 87

Celtics better than OK

OKLAHOMA CITY -- This would not, on the surface, appear to be the easiest place to get well. The Ford Center is loud, with boisterous fans and the now obligatory cheerleader/public address announcer. The ''gym" is an unfamiliar one to most NBA regulars. And on this night, the place was so cold you half expected to see Bud Grant on the sidelines.

But the Celtics managed to deal with all those distractions. They quieted the prairie folk, found the chilly conditions to their liking, and made their sole stop in Oklahoma a rewarding one, taking a 101-87 decision from the relocated Hornets. The Celtics will again take their season-long quest for an actual winning streak into San Antonio tomorrow night.

Boston also moved into second place in the ever-cutthroat Atlantic Division, remaining a half-game behind New Jersey, which won at Charlotte. At 8-10, the Celtics are a half-game ahead of Philadelphia, which lost to Milwaukee.

There was little mystery to this one. The Celtics never trailed -- there were six ties, all in the first quarter -- as Paul Pierce (28 points, 12 rebounds) and Ricky Davis (26 points) led the way from the get-go, combining for 17 points and seven field goals in the first quarter. The two combined for eight field goals in the entire game the previous night.

And when those two needed a breather, the Celtics went inside with the play of an energized Mark Blount (19 points, 4 rebounds) and Al Jefferson (16 points, 9 rebounds). Those two had their way with what passes for the Hornets' interior defense, which, to be frank, is basically nonexistent. The Celtics shot well (48 percent) and never allowed the locals to get into the game, in much the same way as Houston stopped any and all comeback efforts the night before.

''They came to play and we didn't," said the always candid Byron Scott, the Hornets' coach. He has a well-deserved reputation for ripping his players and he cut right to the chase -- his team's utter inability to stop the Celtics inside or outside.

''Defensively, we're letting guys go wherever they want to go," Scott continued. ''And we're letting them catch it wherever they want to catch it. Then, we're trying to play them. It doesn't work that way in the NBA."

Bingo. And to the Celtics' credit, they milked it for all it was worth. They moved the ball much better than the night before, although they managed only 13 assists. They were active on the glass (Jefferson and Ryan Gomes had some big plays on the offensive boards) and they did not forget that Blount and Jefferson were, as Scott noted, getting whatever they wanted.

''I thought it was a really nice effort by our bigs," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, referring to his big men. He said the team's post play was ''the difference in the game." He noted that in the Houston game, the tape showed, somewhat astonishingly, that the players had 42 opportunities to set good, hard picks, and somehow missed on all 42. Honest.

''[Last night], we set great picks. And guys got open," Rivers said.

It was clear from the outset that this was a vastly different team from the night before. Davis, who struggled mightily in Houston, knocked down his first three shots. Pierce was equally assertive and successful. The Hornets managed to match hoops with the Celtics for the first six-plus minutes, creating the game's final tie at 18-18 on a Chris Paul hoop. Paul, who had 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists, missed a free throw that would have given the Hornets the lead. He bricked four free throws in the game and his teammates boinged another six.

The Celtics then closed the quarter with a 13-6 run and then opened the second with a 7-2 spurt, building a 12-point lead. This was where Blount surfaced, abusing the overmatched Chris Andersen, who played seven first-half minutes, never to return. The lead was 11 at the half and 12 after three. The Celtics never let the hosts get closer than seven (67-60) in the second half and, when that happened, Boston went on a punishing 9-1 run, featuring 4 points from Jefferson, 3 from Pierce, and 2 from Davis.

The lead stayed in double digits the rest of the way.

''They're a dangerous team," Raef LaFrentz said. ''Their biggest strength is their energy. They tried to make a comeback, but we were able to make the plays."

The Hornets did get to within 10 when David West (29 points) opened the fourth quarter scoring. But Blount responded with a 3-point play to start a 6-0 run and effectively end any semblance of competition for the remainder of the evening.

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