Jefferson, Perkins help Celtics chop Minnesota
Minnesotas Michael Olowokandi (right) and the Celtics Mark Blount, subjects of a trade rumor making the rounds, met on the court last night. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
The Celtics' future showed up unexpectedly in the fourth quarter last night as Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins made big basket after big basket and grabbed big rebound after big rebound.
Coach Doc Rivers trusted Jefferson and Perkins to work well together down the stretch, and the pair rewarded Rivers by taking the offensive burden off Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis and limiting reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Kevin Garnett (29 points, 13 rebounds) to just 2 points in the fourth. The Celtics also committed a season-low five turnovers, one shy of matching the franchise low for a regular-season game.
When executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge lies awake worried about what will become of the Celtics (15-23), he can think back to the performances of Jefferson and Perkins in a 103-96 victory over the Timberwolves last night at the TD Banknorth Garden. It may not allow him to rest easy, but it shows the team is taking steps forward. To claim the two 21-year-olds came of NBA age in the win would be a wild overstatement. With the exception of Delonte West, none of the Celtics' young players has shown the ability to put together a stretch of good games.
But today there is more hope than yesterday. For a team sliding toward the bottom of the Atlantic Division and still believing it can make the playoffs, every little bit helps.
''I get tired of people saying [Kendrick and I] are not ready to play together," said Jefferson (18 points, eight rebounds). ''I feel like we are. We're both composed and we both can shoot the ball. When he scored, I felt like I scored. When I scored, he felt like he scored. I feel we're going to see this a lot more in the future.
''It's going to be our time one day. Hopefully, for the rest of the season we're going to give them a little taste of how it's going to be."
Boston took the lead for good, 83-82, on a layup by Perkins with 4 minutes 49 seconds remaining. The teams traded baskets before a 19-footer from Jefferson and a reverse layup from Perkins helped the Celtics stretch their advantage. Davis found Jefferson for a layup that capped a decisive 12-2 run and pushed Boston ahead, 91-84, with 1:58 to go. Pierce effectively sealed the victory when he hit a 3-pointer from in front of the Minnesota bench with one second remaining on the shot clock. With less than a minute remaining, Jefferson and Perkins left the game to a crescendo of applause from the crowd of 15,859.
''The future has got to start sometime and it might as well start now," said Perkins (career-high 17 points and six rebounds, including five offensive). ''We can't just depend on Paul and Ricky to do everything. They've got to have some backup. Everybody has got to play every night. We've got the talent here. Losing close games, winning one or two, then losing three, sometime has got to stop."
The Celtics did need Pierce to spark them at the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth. When he nailed a 3-pointer with 39.9 seconds left in the third for just his third field goal, it seemed his struggles from the floor were over. Boston entered the final period trailing, 73-69, but Pierce picked up where he left off in the third. He opened the fourth with a driving dunk over Michael Olowokandi, then recorded a 3-point play to push the Celtics ahead, 74-73. Pierce extended the lead to 77-73 with another 3-pointer that capped a 10-2 run. But nothing made Pierce happier in the fourth quarter than watching Jefferson and Perkins play well.
''These guys really grew up a lot tonight against a former MVP [Garnett]," said Pierce (25 points, eight rebounds). ''They didn't back down. We've just got to keep them out there, throw them in the fire like we did, especially in the fourth quarter and crucial parts of the game."
With Pierce struggling in the first half (1 for 8), it seemed someone would have to step up in the third and fourth quarters. Minnesota stretched its lead to a game-high 14 points at 40-26 with nine minutes left in the second, and the Celtics heard boos from the crowd. The Celtics trailed, 55-46, at halftime. But after allowing the Timberwolves to score 32 points in the first quarter and shoot 53 percent in the first half, the Celtics responded on defense. Boston held Minnesota to 38 percent shooting in the second half, in no small part because of Jefferson and Perkins.