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WARRIORS 96, CELTICS 95

Celtics left to wonder

Given chance, they refuse to take a shot

You'd have been able to retire early, comfortably, and to the exotic island of your choice if you had a head-scratching stand outside TD Banknorth Garden last night. For what transpired in the last 20 odd seconds still defies logic.

The Celtics, down by a point against a team that isn't exactly known for its defense, could not muster a shot and ended up dropping a 96-95 decision to the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics got the play they wanted. They got the matchup they wanted. They got the spacing they wanted. They did not get the result they wanted. Paul Pierce tried to dribble through a swarm of Warriors who poked, jabbed, and otherwise harassed the Celtics' captain to the point where he couldn't even make a pass.

As he tried to wriggle free and do something, the game clock sounded, the ball still in Pierce's hands. Four other Celtics stood there. No one had thought to call a timeout when Pierce was getting overwhelmed.

"We trust Paul to do his thing right there," said Delonte West.

After the game clock sounded, the referees huddled and decided that a jump ball had been called with .6 seconds left. After each team took a timeout, the jump ball was swatted away and with it went the Celtics' five-game winning streak. They fell to an unseemly 4-9 at home and surrendered their Atlantic Division lead to the Nets, who beat Cleveland.

Pierce, who finished with 27 points, had started what would have been a rewarding, game-winning rally with a driving layup with 2:58 to play, triggering a 7-0 Boston run that trimmed a 94-86 Golden State lead to 94-93 with 1:46 to play. But then Baron Davis (31 points, 8 assists) hit a tough baseline fallaway jumper after Pierce had lost the ball, the 22d and last Celtics turnover (more on that later). Al Jefferson (13 points, 11 rebounds) then made it 96-95 with 48.1 seconds left when he cleaned up a Pierce miss, and the Celtics got the Warriors to miss, which was easy to do given that Jason Richardson (4 for 19) took the shot.

Then came the final possession. Doc Rivers decided not to call a timeout and the team ran its "13" play. Golden State, which played a zone all night, cooperated at first, with Pierce running a pick and roll. Then came the Warriors' trap and all you-know-what broke out. The Celtics still had a 20-second timeout available.

"Someone on the floor could have called a timeout," Rivers said. "I thought Paul should have gone quicker, when he got the ball, and taken it to the basket. And then when they trapped, he chose not to make the pass."

Asked about the final possession, Pierce said, "We ran the play we wanted. They did a good job of smothering the ball and I couldn't get the pass off or the shot."

The Warriors' Mike Dunleavy, who mostly was a disaster on the floor, said, "We got a big stop on Paul with a straight triple-team. I guess that is how you have to beat that guy."

The win qualifies under the "much needed" category for Golden State, which entered the evening with a 1-9 road mark and eight straight road defeats. The Warriors' only road win prior to last night had been Nov. 6 in Dallas. They led for the final 27-plus minutes by as many as 14 points, but they knew they were lucky to have left the building with a W.

"The force was with us or something," said coach Don Nelson. "I don't have any idea how we won that game. We struggled to get anything done in the fourth quarter. But we'll take it."

And the Celtics will look back at this one as an outright giveaway. They committed 17 of their turnovers (along with four defensive three-second technicals) in a first half that was utterly forgettable. Said Rivers, "You have to come mentally prepared to play basketball. You can't just show up. It was a bad lesson for us."

Golden State used an 18-5 run in the second quarter to take the lead for good, grabbing a 10-point bulge at the break. The Celtics cut the deficit to 5 after three quarters, but despite many fourth-quarter thrusts, the Warriors always had the necessary parry to stay on top.

Davis was their man for much of the evening. Said Nelson, "He just wouldn't let us lose."

Davis had 9 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter, none bigger than the baseline fadeaway, which represented Golden State's only points in the final 3:18. "That was an unbelievable shot he made," said Pierce, one of Davis's California chums. "That's what makes him one of the better point guards, if not the best, in the league."

The Celtics got another good game from Tony Allen (17 points, 7 rebounds) and Jefferson had his moments, despite some defensive lapses and four missed free throws in the fourth quarter.

Ryan Gomes returned from a two-game absence and scored 14 points . But this game looked a lot more like the ones earlier this season, the ones the Celtics couldn't finish, and it's hard to finish when you can't get off a shot or make a pass when you need 2 points to win the game.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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