DALLAS -- If Boston learned anything on this road trip, it was how to compete with the big boys. Now, the Celtics need to figure out how to win. They did not give up easily in San Antonio Friday night. And they showed a considerable amount of resilience last night in Dallas, though they still have to work on finishing games down the stretch. Suffering through a four-minute scoring drought at the end of the game, Boston fell to the Mavericks, 103-94.
After trailing by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, the Celtics closed within 1, 88-87, when Al Jefferson went in for a layup that capped a 7-0 run. But missed shots doomed Boston. Following the Jefferson layup, the Celtics missed their next nine field goal attempts, including two blocks by DeSagana Diop on Raef LaFrentz, a 3-pointer by Delonte West, and layups by Ricky Davis and Jefferson.
''Hopefully, we can learn from this," said Pierce (28 points), who suffered a sprained right ankle in a third-quarter collision with Devin Harris, but continued to play and will see how it heals over the next few days before making any decision about competing against Indiana Wednesday. ''Hopefully, later in the season, these are games we can be pulling out. [The Mavericks] executed even when their shots weren't falling and were able to get to the line better than we were [43-14 in free throws attempts]. That just shows a veteran team."
Dallas opened the third quarter with a 12-1 run and appeared to hand Boston an insurmountable deficit in the process. Former Celtic Adrian Griffin capped the Mavericks' run with a layup that pushed the home team ahead, 64-48, with 7:43 left in the third. Dallas led by as many as 17 points on a couple of occasions as the Celtics reverted to bad habits, with turnovers preventing them from keeping pace.
But some of the resilience Boston showed against San Antonio resurfaced and the Green closed within 6 points, 73-67, near the end of the third when Jefferson capped a 9-3 spurt. Jefferson was on the way to an impressive night, scoring 8 of a career-high 21 in the quarter.
Coach Doc Rivers called last night's contest a ''gravy game," meaning it would be a huge bonus if the Celtics could find a way to defeat the Mavericks on the road in the second of back-to-back games at the end of a weeklong trip. No idea what Rivers would call a game in which Boston stayed close but never really gained control. But that is what happened during the course of the first half, which ended with Boston behind, 52-47. The Celtics managed to stay close by shooting 54 percent from the field with the customary prolific efforts from Pierce and Davis (20 points).
''You can ask for better, but it was a pretty good trip," said Davis after the Celtics finished the five games with a 2-3 mark. ''We executed good [down the stretch] and got the plays we wanted. The last couple of shots we just didn't make at the end. Guys are growing each game, bit I think we just need to go forward and get back in games and try to win them."
The fact that Boston mustered such a strong offensive effort in the first half was particularly impressive considering the Mavericks' new attention to defense under coach Avery Johnson. Dallas had been holding opponents to 44 percent from the floor. The Celtics held their own on the defensive end as well, holding the Mavericks to 46 percent shooting from the floor and keeping Dirk Nowitzki largely in check (10 points), though Jason Terry got loose for a couple of timely 3-pointers and Harris got to the line to help lift the bench.
The Celtics and Mavericks swapped the lead throughout the first quarter until the end when the home team broke a 23-23 tie and closed the period with a 5-0 run. The 5-point cushion would prove useful in the second as Dallas never surrendered its advantage, though Boston closed within 2, 28-26, on a 3-pointer by Dan Dickau with 10:56 remaining.
The fact that Dickau made such an early appearance showed just how much Rivers tinkered with his rotation. The changes began at the top when Rivers replaced LaFrentz with Mark Blount in the starting lineup. LaFrentz has struggled with his jump shot over the last several games, while Blount has appeared more engaged and eager to contribute defensively as well as offensively. The personnel moves continued with Jefferson and Ryan Gomes making appearances midway though the first quarter.
While the changes may have initially caught the Mavericks off guard, they were looking more like the dominant team they have been in the second quarter. So far this season, Dallas has defeated all four conference finalists from the 2005 playoffs. In many ways, the Mavericks resemble the Spurs in their ability to simply turn it on against lesser teams. Dallas staged an 11-2 run in the second quarter that gave them a 39-28 lead with 7:11 remaining in the quarter. But like Friday night in San Antonio, Boston mustered an impressive response by piecing together a 7-0 run that brought the Green within 3 points, 44-41, with 3:12 left in the half.
The Celtics needed even more production from Davis and Pierce in the second half, as well as some scoring support from the bench if they wanted to stay close. Unlike the Mavericks, they could not afford to turn it on and off.
''This team, even when they're down, they've fought back," said Rivers. ''We're not winning games, but I think we will by the end of this campaign and I think we're going to be OK. Our young guys are growing up before our eyes."
And Rivers hopes someday they will be the big boys.