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Trying to win close calls

Celtics frustrated by narrow defeats

WALTHAM -- Eyes rolled when Wally Szczerbiak dragged out the cliché "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" after the Celtics' 91-87 loss to the Hornets opening night. Even Szczerbiak smiled yesterday at the triteness of his postgame comments. But the Celtics might benefit from making the overused phrase a mantra. Like horseshoes and hand grenades, statistics about the Celtics' shortcomings in close games have been thrown about a lot.

Last season, Boston found itself in 33 games decided by 5 or fewer points. In those games, Boston was 12-21. Doc Rivers and veteran players are well aware of those numbers and, obviously, they don't want this season to be a repeat of last season. Less obvious or certain is when the Celtics will execute down the stretch in a way that will win games, not just keep them close. Listening to Szczerbiak, Boston clearly knows what it should do.

"Part of it is maturity and part of it is coming out and executing at the beginning of games," said Szczerbiak. "It's a 48-minute game and we definitely have the ability to go on runs. We've got to minimize our bad points and maximize our good points. That's what good teams do. We've got to play a little bit smarter at times. That's where we're trying to get to with a lot of our young guys, just make good basketball plays, high-percentage plays as often as possible.

"We have a very clutch basketball player in Paul [Pierce] and I think we get into the habit of watching him play in the fourth quarter. We've got to be ready to make the shot when we're open and he's double-teamed. He's got to be ready and willing to give us a ball to where other guys can score and make things happen. That's a process and I think we're getting better at it."

Watching Pierce do what he does best in the fourth quarter became a bad habit last season. But with the way Pierce (29 points, 19 rebounds ) played against the Hornets, it was hard not to hope he could work some magic in the final minutes.

"The thing about the game of basketball is it's going to be something different every game," said Pierce. "[Opening] night, free throws beat us, missed free throws, getting down early. The next game it could be something else. It could be them getting more offensive rebounds than us, a number of things. So, I think it just comes down to being consistent every quarter. We have to execute the game plan and we'll be fine."

Meanwhile, Rivers chooses to view close games in a positive light, especially considering the Celtics trailed the Hornets by 18 in the second quarter.

"We'll find that out [if it's still an issue]," said Rivers. "A lot of people looked at it as a negative thing, but I looked at it as we stayed in a lot of games. [Against the Hornets ], it wasn't a 5-point game until the end of the game. We were out of the game most of the game. We fought back into that game. I don't see a negative thing with that. That's good. Now, whether we can overtake teams or not . . . we have to wait and see. Obviously, we hope at some point we don't have close games and we can just win. But right now, I'm worried about winning just a game and whatever it takes to do that we're going to do."

Theo Ratliff went through several shooting drills yesterday after practice with assistant coaches Tony Brown and Clifford Ray. Judging by how well he moved throughout the drills over 45 continuous minutes, Ratliff appears very close to returning to the lineup. The veteran missed most of preseason with a sore lower back. Ratliff and Rivers believe the center will be ready for the Charlotte Bobcats Wednesday. "Every day I go a little bit harder, go a little bit further," said Ratliff. "I'm just trying to keep the process moving, so I can get back to 100 percent." . . Delonte West said he was 100 percent healthy and that his less than impressive play against the Hornets resulted from him putting extra pressure on himself to win one for Red Auerbach . . . While the Celtics went small against the Hornets, Rivers said he planned to go big against the Pistons tonight. And that likely means Ryan Gomes will start in place of West.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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