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On basketball

They've been in third gear

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / December 15, 2007

Frank Layden once emerged from the Utah Jazz locker room in the old Boston Garden, his hapless team having been trounced by a very good Celtics squad, and looked at a group of reporters waiting hungrily for his thoughts. No sooner had the first question left the lips of the unfortunate inquisitor when Layden stopped him in midsentence.

"What? You mean we were supposed to win?"

It's getting eerily similar to that these days at the Garden. Twelve up and 12 down for the Celtics, with a record-setting baker's dozen awaiting Wednesday's in-season epic against the Pistons. Last night's 104-82 destruction of the weary Milwaukee Bucks was like so many of the previous home victories - a blowout. Kevin Garnett was on the bench, still inciting his teammates in the fourth quarter while Leon Powe crashed the glass and Big Baby crashed - period.

The difference last night, as it has been for so many of Boston's wins, was the third quarter. The Celtics kind of slogged through the first half, adjusting to life without Ray Allen, then absolutely annihilated the Bucks in the third. A 2-point halftime lead became a 19-point third-quarter lead and, well, that was that.

Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak didn't try to sugarcoat things. He cut right to the chase.

"They regroup and they come out and if you are not ready to match it in the third quarter, then they are going to lay it on you," he said. "That's what happened to us. They came out with a lot more energy and focus and they simply overwhelmed us."

The carnage was everywhere in the third quarter. The Celtics outscored the Bucks, 32-15. They outrebounded them, 13-8. They outscored them, 12-0, on points off turnovers, forcing seven while committing only one. Paul Pierce (12 points) nearly outscored the entire Milwaukee team in the period.

A note of condolence and sympathy for the Bucks, who must have made some enemies in the NBA scheduling office. They are in a stretch where they play 13 straight games without playing two in a row at the same venue. In other words, 13 games without anything resembling so much as a two-game homestand. They just came back from a West Coast swing, played Orlando at home Wednesday, came here last night, went back home to play Minnesota tonight, then play at Cleveland Monday before finally having consecutive home games for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend.

So, let's just say Milwaukee was ripe for the plucking. The Bucks threw a zone at the Celtics in the first half, slowed things down, and, well, the evidence at halftime was compelling.

"We see they shot 49 percent," said Pierce. "We see we've got 10 turnovers and shot 45 percent and we're not rebounding and we're not executing. I think we all know we can pick it up an extra gear in the second half regardless of how we played in the first half. And that's what we tend to do."

This is becoming a habit - a good one, of course - for the Celtics. They have owned the third quarter in each of the last eight games, which, not coincidentally, they have won. The last time they were outscored in a third quarter was Nov. 27 in Cleveland, the last time they lost. They have outscored opponents by an average of more than 10 points in the third quarter in those eight games, ranging from an 18-point demolition of the soulless Knicks Nov. 29 to a mere 4-point spread over the Heat the next night in Miami.

Doc Rivers would love to take credit for some Rockne-esque halftime spiel, but in truth, it's more like what Pierce described. There's the evidence on the stat sheet. There's video to support it. There's talk about what needs to be done. And then, vrooom.

"We make some adjustments, not much," Rivers conceded. "We remind them who we are. We remind them how we play. We point that out. We have a blueprint of how we should play. Other than that, it's nothing deep."

If the Bucks thought they might be the ones to end the Celtics' unbeaten streak at home, the first four minutes of the third quarter quickly disabused them of such a preposterous notion. The Celtics forced five turnovers in the first 3:54, four charged to rookie Yi Jianlin, who, to be kind, played like a rookie. Pierce nailed two of his four 3-pointers in that stretch.

A 46-44 halftime lead went to 58-49 before Krystkowiak called the first timeout. He needed a couple of more, but it was no use. It was 78-59 after three and Garnett never needed to get off the bench in the fourth. Pierce retired for good with 7:20 left and the lead still at a comfy, cozy 19.

It was then another prolonged stretch of watching the subs while waiting for the now obligatory Gino sighting on the Jumbotron.

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

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