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WIZARDS 89, CELTICS 87

Celtics in foul mood

Arenas free throws lift Wizards again

Washington's Gilbert Arenas draws a foul on Ricky Davis with just 1.7 seconds left in the game. Arenas would sink both free throws.
Washington's Gilbert Arenas draws a foul on Ricky Davis with just 1.7 seconds left in the game. Arenas would sink both free throws. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)

Ricky Davis was absolutely certain and alone in the opinion he never touched Gilbert Arenas as the Washington guard maneuvered toward the basket for what he hoped would be a game-winning shot.

Arenas got the ball up, but he didn't have much of a shot. It didn't matter. Referee Luis Grillo saw illegal contact and called a foul on Davis with 1.7 seconds remaining.

Arenas stepped to the line and calmly hit two free throws, just as he had in the closing seconds of the Wizards' victory over the Celtics Jan. 7 at Washington. Moments later, Paul Pierce missed a fadeaway jumper that would have sent the game into overtime. As a result, the Celtics were left with an 89-87 loss at the TD Banknorth Garden last night and headache-inducing déjà vu.

''I thought the double team would come and I'd have to pass it and then hope to get it back, but they went one-on-one," said Arenas, who scored 19 points. ''When I crossed over, he grabbed my arm. Then I went up. I didn't think he would reach for [the ball], so I was going to jump into [Kendrick Perkins]. But he reached and bailed me out."

When asked which win at the foul line was more satisfying, the one last night or the one Jan. 7, Arenas said, ''Both, but this one truthfully because it's the same repeat of the other. And it's [angering Celtics coach] Doc [Rivers]. He doesn't want to lose a game by a call at the end. Two free throws. It's a hard way to lose a game."

Rivers would be the first, but not the last on the Celtics side, to comment that the game should never have come down to two free throws. Despite the fact that Boston committed 17 turnovers (for 20 points), found itself on the wrong end of a few controversial (many would say blown) calls, and had a 12-point first-quarter lead turn into a 39-37 halftime advantage, the home team still should have won. Or so the Celtics (17-25) justifiably believed.

''This game was ours," Rivers said. ''We did all the right things. The turnovers hurt us. Unforced errors. Obviously missed free throws hurt us. We still should've won the game. But we didn't and there's nothing I can do about it. ''

The Celtics led, 81-74, after Pierce hit an 18-foot turnaround jumper with 4:12 remaining in the game. It finally seemed they had overcome three-plus quarters of inconsistent play and were ready to proceed toward victory. But not so fast.

With Boston ahead by 5 points moments later, Brian Scalabrine was called for a clear-path foul much to the anger of Rivers, who ranted and stomped his feet on the sideline and came close to earning a technical. According to the rulebook, a clear-path foul cannot be called without possession of the ball and Washington did not appear to have possession. In fact, it was originally ruled a loose-ball foul. The call put Arenas at the line for one shot and the Wizards maintained possession. The call also helped Washington gather momentum as it staged 7-0 run and tied the score, 81-81, on a 3-point play by Antawn Jamison (26 points) with 2:46 left.

The Wizards took the lead on another controversial call when officials tagged Raef LaFrentz for a flagrant foul and Jamison went to the line again. Jamison hit the parquet hard and the officials apparently thought LaFrentz was largely responsible for the off-balance fall. But replays seemed to show Jamison slipped, causing him to hit the floor with a thud, not because of anything LaFrentz did. The free throws by Jamison put Washington ahead, 83-81. A 21-footer from Arenas that soon followed extended the Washington lead to 85-81 with 2:20 to go.

Pierce (25 points) finally ended a stretch of six straight misses from the line and hit a pair of foul shots that helped Boston gain ground. A 15-footer and a driving Pierce dunk gave the Celtics the lead with 58.5 seconds left. But Pierce whiffed on an even more crucial pair of free throws in the closing seconds -- on a night when the Celtics shot 11 for 22 from the line -- while Jamison and Arenas did not miss.

''We looked back at the tape, and you know there was contact made [between Davis and Arenas]," said Delonte West (10 points, career-high tying 9 assists). ''But we are not upset about that. We are just upset that we didn't close the game out when we had them. That's the real reason we're upset in here. Not about the call. The refs have got to their jobs and make the appropriate calls. We've got to do a better job of just closing games out."

Because losses like the one last night will undoubtedly come back to haunt the Celtics later in the season, especially with the Wizards competing for the No. 8 seed in the East.

Last night, Boston lost valuable ground in that race. As they take on the second half of the season, it is clear the Celtics need to figure out a way to finish strong.

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