OAKLAND, Calif. -- Once again, the Celtics found victory on the road within reach in the fourth quarter after a similarly mediocre opponent could not close out the game. Once again, the Celtics could not get a defensive stop when they needed one most. With 27.7 seconds remaining and the sellout crowd at The Arena in Oakland chanting, ''Let's Go Warriors. Let's Go Warriors," Baron Davis kicked to Derek Fisher on the right wing. Fisher scored on a driving layup with 6.2 seconds remaining to give Golden State a 111-109 win. Boston had one last chance, but Davis stole the ball from his childhood friend, Paul Pierce. And Boston didn't get another shot.
The Celtics tied the score at 107, with 1 minute 55 seconds left on three straight free throws, the last two coming as a result of Ricky Davis crashing the boards after Pierce missed from the line. The teams traded baskets. Then, the Celtics got lucky when three Warriors went after a rebound, could not gain control, and the ball trickled out to Pierce. But the Celtics could not capitalize on the ensuing possession as Mark Blount missed a straightaway 16-footer. The Warriors did not make the same mistake twice as Jason Richardson clutched the defensive rebound tightly. Then, they made good on the ensuing possession. The victory snapped a five-game Warriors losing streak.
''It was a tough loss," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ''The game felt like whoever had the ball last was going to win. That's the way the game was going, with no one playing any defense. I guess people want to see that. I don't."
By the time the third quarter ended, Golden State had all five starters in double figures. Richardson led the Warriors with 36 points. Boston was not far behind with four starters reaching double digits. Pierce finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, and Davis added 24 points. It was an all-offense kind of game. (Boston shot 53 percent, Golden State 54.) The Warriors' 90-85 edge after three quarters could easily have been mistaken for a final score.
With the Celtics' scoring cooling off, the Warriors took advantage and led by a game-high 9 points (82-73) with 3:55 left in the third. But what the Celtics lacked in frequent baskets, they made up for in timely baskets. Two 3-pointers late in the third helped Boston stay close. But while the Warriors collected rebounds in an effort to stay even on the glass in the second half, the Celtics continued to rack up turnovers. Neither trend was good for the Green as they headed into the fourth. The visitors ended up outrebounding the Warriors, 38-28, though they cost themselves with 23 turnovers that led to 27 points.
''That's the tale of the game," Pierce said. ''The one [statistic] you look at is the turnovers. It just seems like if it's not one thing, then it's the other."
Pierce had to smile and shake his head at the irony of the first half ending with Davis holding the ball. Caught up in trying to drive around his defender, Davis lost track of time and failed to launch a last-second shot from the perimeter. The buzzer sounded with Boston trailing, 58-57, and all Davis could do was look down at the ball in his hands. After a half in which both teams couldn't wait to toss up shots, it was hard to believe someone wouldn't be in a rush to fire up yet another attempt.
When the Warriors called a timeout with 5:24 remaining in the first quarter, the joke was that the statisticians had requested the break just to catch up. At that point, defense appeared optional as the teams traded baskets in quick succession with the Celtics shooting 93 percent (13 for 14) from the floor and the Warriors 85 percent (11 for 13). After the timeout, the action slowed slightly and players actually began missing shots. After leading by as many as 6 points, Boston claimed a 38-37 lead at the end of one, after Richardson hit a 3-pointer at the quarter buzzer.
Entering last night, the Warriors had given up 37 points to New Jersey, 35 points to Philadelphia, and 44 points to Denver in the first quarters of recent games. So, in a way, trailing by 1 after a high-scoring opening quarter was a small victory for the home team.
The game remained close throughout the second quarter, with 17 lead changes and eight ties during the opening half, though the Warriors managed to lead by as many as 4 points (48-44) when Fisher hit a 21-footer on the break midway though the second. This time, Rivers called a timeout to refocus the Celtics, and the visitors responded with a 7-1 run. Blount capped the spurt with a driving layup that pushed Boston ahead, 51-49. But with Richardson, Troy Murphy, and Davis all enjoying solid games, it was only a matter of time before the Warriors regained the lead.
But to the Celtics' credit, they dominated in the one area that had caused them the greatest grief in recent games: rebounding. Boston held a 20-8 advantage on the glass at halftime, including six offensive that led to 6 second-chance points. But the fact that the Celtics seemed well on their way to finishing the game with a rebounding advantage and a shooting percentage greater than 50 percent did not guarantee victory. Boston entered only three games above .500 (7-4) when outrebounding opponents and, prior to last night, the Green dropped five out of six games in which they shot 50 percent or better.
From the way the first half unfolded, the team that applied even a little bit of defensive pressure in the second half would put itself in position to win. The Celtics spent much of practice Tuesday reviewing defensive fundamentals, though it has been a struggle for them to translate what they learn in practice to game situations. Last night, they had two quarters to show that the learning process is starting to produce results.