Celtics survive surge
Carter (33), Nets denied at the end
So much for coasting into the playoffs.
The Celtics' starters began slowly, then wrapped things up with a sloppy finish last night; but thanks to some energetic bench play, the Green held off the New Jersey Nets, 106-104, at TD Banknorth Garden.
Midseason acquisitions Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore had strong impacts, Marbury helping keep the Celtics in contention in the first half and Moore playing a key role in the final quarter.
And though this was a night for the reserves to establish an identity, in the end the Celtics (59-19) turned to Ray Allen, Kendrick Perkins, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo (31 points).
"I thought they hadn't played well enough to sit," coach Doc Rivers said of the starters. "I thought they needed to play. Usually, when you play extremely well and you get a lead, you sit them. And when you don't, you look at it two ways - well, they've got to give you something or you just sit them. So, I tend to lean toward Paul and Ray, no matter if they're playing well or not - they're pretty good."
But the Celtics nearly fumbled away a 7-point lead in the final 71 seconds.
The Celtics, who will take a five-game winning streak into tomorrow's game against Miami, appeared to have clinched the result as Rondo's drive led to a Perkins follow, then Rondo's steal and layup made the score 106-99 with 1:22 to play.
But that would be it for Boston's offense.
Vince Carter (33 points) hit a 3-pointer out of a timeout, then scored off a steal to cut the deficit to 2 points with 50.5 seconds left. Pierce then missed before the Nets called time out with 20.3 seconds left. Carter and Devin Harris then missed before Perkins contested the final rebound, with the ball ending up in Ray Allen's hands as the clock expired.
"They pretty much won the game," Pierce said of the bench. "Shoot, Doc could have probably left them in the whole game and it probably wouldn't have been as close of a game."
Eddie House and Marbury sparked the Celtics during a 37-20 second quarter. Rondo led the way as the Celtics concluded the half with a 7-point lead, converting four foul shots and assisting on a Pierce fast-break dunk in a 23-second span. Pierce capped a 14-4 run with a drive for a 58-49 lead 18 seconds remaining in the half.
But the Nets rallied to tie the score late in the third quarter. Tony Allen hit a layup off a Rondo backdoor feed to give the Celtics a 2-point edge with 2:33 to go, then broke away in transition for a reverse dunk off a Ray Allen lob for a 4-point lead with 1:58 remaining in the third.
Moore (9 points, nine rebounds) started the final quarter by committing two fouls in the opening 19 seconds, costing the Celtics a possession and contributing to a tying 3-point play by Chris Douglas-Roberts. But Moore then sent a no-look, over-the-head pass to Perkins, and scored twice off follows during a 9-0 run. Moore's 3-point play made it 97-90 with 6:22 remaining.
The Celtics were outscored, 10-4, during crunch time. The fact the Celtics held on, defending well on the Nets' final possession, indicates they can be resourceful but also is a reminder how much they miss Kevin Garnett (right knee). The Celtics, who have a five-game home winning streak, hold a one-game lead over Orlando for the No. 2 Eastern Conference seed.
"I like what we've done the last four or five games," Pierce said. "We were a little rusty [last] night but I thought our defense was really coming together."
Rondo was a point away from equaling his career high.
"The last few games, he's just been scoring the ball pretty well," Pierce said of Rondo. "And Rajon, if he's able to score the ball like that, we're going to be a tough team to beat, because he takes so much pressure off of me and Ray, especially with Kevin out. You look at me - 10 [points] and Ray 12, and we get the win."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.