Weary Celtics hold off Nets
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - It never got out of hand. Brook Lopez drilled a 19-footer, Rafer Alston drained a 3-pointer from 25 feet, and in less than a minute, the Nets gave the Celtics a nice little pop on the chin.
But New Jersey’s early lead was never larger than a couple of baskets, and the Celtics were never out of striking distance, which was what Doc Rivers was hoping for.
His team had played eight games in 12 days, more than any other team in the league. Whether the Celtics wanted to admit it or not, fatigue was setting in and execution was suffering, particularly on the defensive end.
He just wanted his team to hang in as long as possible.
“I was just thinking about how long we can keep this game and stretch this game and then make a run in the fourth quarter,’’ Rivers said.
The lineups were mixed with backup point guard Marquis Daniels absent for personal reasons. There were times when starters sat for long stretches and reserves such as Brian Scalabrine had to be Johnny on the Spot. Ultimately, the Celtics’ 86-76 win was one they cobbled together, but it was a win nonetheless.
“We can play better,’’ Rivers said. “We know that, but we’ll take the win right now. I didn’t think we had a lot in the tank. I could see that. That’s why we sat our starters long stretches. I was just trying to milk the game as long as I could get it and then I’d pray at the end that we’d have enough to win it.’’
The Nets weren’t in great shape themselves. They had seven players on the injury report and one (Chris Douglas-Roberts) with swine flu. They were a winless team with only eight active players, but before the game Ray Allen went down the list of available veterans -- Rafer Alston (20 points, 7 assists), Bobby Simmons (10 points, 5 rebounds), Lopez (23 points) - and emphasized how dangerous they could be.
“You’re playing a team that’s desperate,’’ said Paul Pierce. “They’ve got everything against them, guys are hurting, no wins in the win column. We expected them to come out and play hard.’’
“These guys are capable of winning games,’’ said Rajon Rondo, who finished with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting. “I’m sure once they get back healthy, they’ll be a tough team.’’
The Nets battled the Celtics for 3 1/2 quarters, giving in late in the fourth. Allen scored just 12 points but 8 came in that final frame, including a pair of jumpers - 17 and 22 feet - that held the Nets at bay and gave the Celtics their only breathing room of the night. Rivers said the best ball movement they had all night came in the final five minutes.
“In the fourth quarter, we executed our stuff down the stretch and we got some good looks and kind of broke their back a little bit,’’ Allen said.
Not having Daniels, meant Rivers had to toy with lineups a little, and he went to Scalabrine early, subbing him for Pierce in the first quarter. Scalabrine played 20 minutes, scored 5 points and had three steals because of smart rotations.
“That’s why you love him,” Rivers said. “He’s such a great role player for the team. He will not play a second one game, then he’ll come in the next and play meaningful minutes. He won’t hurt you. He just does smart things on the floor.’’
The Celtics shot 44.9 percent from the floor, missing layups on the break and bricking wide-open jumpers, but overcame it at the line where they were 23 of 29, a shift from the trend they had set in the first seven games.
“We haven’t been getting to the line as much as we were last year,’’ Rivers said. “We’re taking more threes, that’s one of the reasons. We’ve got to start getting back to the line.’’
Pierce (16 points, 7 assists) was crafty, getting to the line five times in the first half, hitting four free throws to keep the Nets from going on a run. Count him among the Celtics looking forward to a day off.
“I think, maybe it’s starting to show,’’ Pierce said. “We’ve played a lot of games. We have three days off now, so we can rest, but before the season started we knew this was going to be a tough stretch.”