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SUNS 102, CELTICS 94

Suns half it their way over Pierce (40) and Celtics

Paul Pierce, who dropped 40 points on the Suns (33 in the second half), appears floored on this play after the referee called him for an offensive foul.
Paul Pierce, who dropped 40 points on the Suns (33 in the second half), appears floored on this play after the referee called him for an offensive foul. (Globe Staff Photo / Matthew J. Lee)

Paul Pierce went Kobe Bryant on the Suns in the second half last night. Unfortunately for the Celtics, he went Mark Bryant on the Suns in the first half. The two Bryants didn't quite add up to a W.

Pierce had 33 of his 40 points in a pick-up-and-carry-the-team second half, helping the Celtics erase all but 2 points of a 23-point, first-half deficit. He knocked down twos, threes, got to the line, and had Suns coach Mike D'Antoni comparing him to Kobe, LeBron James, and Steve Nash. But the Celtics' ferocious comeback fell short, as the Suns emerged with a 102-94 victory before 15,019 at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Pierce would have gladly traded in the big night for a big W, which, as we've come to see, are getting rarer by the day. The Celtics are now a season-worst 10 games below .500 (18-28) and have lost three in a row, matching their longest skid of the season. For the second straight game, they trailed by more than 20 points while never having a lead.

Once again, it was a familiar culprit that did the boys in: turnovers. They had 16 in what might have been their sorriest first half of the season, falling behind by the aforementioned 23 (59-36) as the Suns merrilly rolled along, knocking down open threes or getting easy layups or putbacks. And this was a Phoenix team that could have been pooped, playing the last game of a season-high six-game road trip and having played in Philadelphia the night before. In other words, the Celtics could not have asked for a better situation to steal one.

''I don't know if there is ever a good time to catch Phoenix," Doc Rivers said before the game. ''Maybe on the Monday after the All-Star Game? But we only have to beat them one time."

It was pretty much a game of two halves. The Suns won the first half, easily, and then Pierce led the charge in the second half, as the Celtics opened the third quarter with 13 straight points and 16 of the first 18. Pierce had 14 of those 16 points and, in the end, he would single-handedly outscore the Suns in the period, 20-16. What happened? Did Doc threaten to take away his per diem or trade him to Charlotte?

''I thought Paul got involved in the game and we need everyone else to do the same," Rivers said. ''I thought Paul had great energy towards the end of the half, right before he came out with the guys. He was vocal, and that's good."

What about it, el capitan? ''Coach wanted me to be more aggressive," said Pierce, who was 14-of-27 shooting, including 4 of 8 from international waters. ''I wasn't as aggressive as I should have been. When you make a trade, roles can change. My role has changed. I think I have to be more aggressive now from the start. I have to come out, find my teammates, be more assertive."

He was assertive and then some in the third, going 7 of 10 from the field, including two 3-pointers. By the time the horn sounded, the Celtics' 21-point hole at halftime had been reduced to a very manageable 6, 75-69. Boston would then get to within 2 points (80-78) early in the fourth but got no closer. The Suns' biggest lead in the period was the 8 at the end of the game as the teams traded baskets much of the way.

The Celtics' last gasp came with the Suns nursing a 98-94 lead. Leandro Barbosa was called for charging (Al Jefferson took the hit) and then Pierce was fouled by James Jones on a drive. There was 2:10 left. Pierce (8 of 12 from the line) missed both free throws. Jefferson (17 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots) squirmed in to get the rebound, but was swallowed up and had to call time. It was Boston's last timeout of the game.

A clearly tired Wally Szczerbiak (5 points, 10 rebounds) then missed a trey and, after a Suns' turnover, Pierce couldn't convert. Shawn Marion was then fouled and made two free throws (100-94 with 1:26 left). Another Pierce miss and a Jefferson turnover led to a Bell 3-pointer and the Suns simply ran the clock, the Celtics powerless to stop it.

Phoenix was its usually well-balanced self, with Marion (21 points, 12 rebounds) leading seven players in double figures. (Only 8 Suns played.) Nash had what amounts to an off night for him -- 13 points, 8 assists -- but Bell added 18 points, along with six steals. In total, the Suns collected 26 points off 21 Boston turnovers, which is another way of saying that, once again, the Celtics gave out more than they could take in. And spoiled a night by Pierce that his own coach called ''superhuman."

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