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CELTICS 91, HORNETS 78

A third party for Celtics

Davis spearheads decisive quarter

Back in their final days in Charlotte, when few bothered to care or watch, the Hornets could always count on a few sure things a year: victories over the Celtics. It didn't seem to matter who played or coached or owned or where the game was played. Charlotte usually seemed to find a way to win, taking 13 of 18 from 2000-04.

Then the Hornets moved, and with them went their dominance over Boston. The Celtics made it four straight over the NBA's orphans from New Orleans with a convincing 91-78 victory last night before 14,473 at the Garden. Not only did the Celtics sweep the season series, they never trailed in 96 minutes of basketball.

An ultra-warm Ricky Davis and Raef LaFrentz led the way. The two combined for 28 points in a punishing third quarter, when the Celtics outscored the Hornets, 36-16. That put an end to competition for the evening, as the Celtics won their third in four games and moved to 17-24 at the midway point of the season.

That's not exactly where they thought or hoped they'd be. Still, as coach Doc Rivers said, ''I believe this team has a run in it. I really do."

This week presents a good opportunity, with home games tomorrow night against Washington and Friday against Sacramento, hardly the iron of the NBA. We may even see a three-game winning streak before we see Mark Blount playing meaningful minutes.

Davis (32 points) had 17 in the third quarter on 7-of-8 shooting. He had back-to-back 3-pointers in a 12-0 run over the final 3:10, a run that pushed the lead to 78-55 after three. He then tossed up a really long 3-pointer in the fourth, but missed.

''A heat-check," Davis mused.

''I thought he was trying to catch Kobe," said Rivers, a reference to Kobe Bryant's 81-point submission Sunday night.

But while Davis finished the job in the third, it was LaFrentz who started it. Raef, oh Raef, where have thou been? His 18 points constituted his best output since he went for 22 against the Bobcats the day after Thanksgiving. He had his radar locked in, connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including 4 of 5 from international waters.

''It felt good," LaFrentz said. ''I have been taking the shots. I just haven't been making them."

Added Rivers, ''Raef got his shots and he made them. He changed the game."

LaFrentz knocked down a pair of threes to turn a close game (46-44 Boston) into a runaway-in-the-making. This is how quickly it turned. With 6:05 left in the third, the Celtics' lead was 5 (56-51) after a Rasual Butler 3-pointer. The Celtics then closed the quarter with a 22-4 run, which started with a Davis jumper and ended with an Al Jefferson layup. The Hornets went passive resistant in that stretch, much to the chagrin of their coach, Byron Scott.

''I thought we were terrible," Scott said. ''There was no sense of urgency at any point of time in this game."

Prior to the game, Scott had talked about how badly the Hornets played when these teams met in December in Oklahoma City: ''We made so many mistakes and had so many breakdowns in that game. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win. But we've gotten better."

Their record (20-21) says they're a close-to-.500 team. But you'd have a hard time making a case for an NBDL franchise based on what you saw last night.

Neither team played well in a poor-shooting, turnover-prone first half. The Celtics had an 11-point lead before the game was six minutes old. The Hornets needed four minutes to produce the first of four ties. In the second quarter, the teams combined to go scoreless for more than three minutes, coming up empty on 11 consecutive possessions.

Paul Pierce, who finished with 16 points and watched the entire fourth quarter, made the quarter's first basket at the 3:47 mark. The Hornets, down by 3 at halftime, got 19 points in the first half from David West on 9-of-13 shooting -- and 20 points from everyone else on 4-of-26 shooting.

Someone was due to make a run at some point in the third. As luck would have it, the Hornets were finishing up a road trip, and things can get out of hand in a hurry when the visitors are looking forward to the plane ride home. That's exactly what happened, rendering the final 12 minutes a garbage time production starring J.R. Smith (16 points).

The Hornets had hoped to win this one and get a game above .500 at the midway point. Scott said he would view that as ''an achievement." As it is, anyone who saw them last night will wonder how they managed to win 20 games as it is.

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