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Celtics 89, Hornets 85

Stingy Celtics stop Hornets

Second-half defense, bench keys to victory

Hornets guard Chris Paul (right), who had 15 assists, has no problem finding his way around Celtics forward Kevin Garnett in the first half. Hornets guard Chris Paul (right), who had 15 assists, has no problem finding his way around Celtics forward Kevin Garnett in the first half. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS — It couldn’t have gone much worse defensively than it did the first 24 minutes. That much, Doc Rivers was fairly certain of.

The Hornets were shooting 61 percent in the first half. They were running every possession down to the last second of the shot clock. Chris Paul couldn’t score, but he was playing puppeteer, making Marco Belinelli and David West look like All-Stars.

The Celtics were shooting 50 percent themselves. But their offense was irrelevant as long as their defense undermined it.

“They were shooting it at one second almost every possession,’’ Rivers said. “So we knew it wasn’t going to be a 100-point game.’’

After getting torched by Houston’s backcourt in an embarrassing loss Friday, the defense was getting tagged again.

Then, midway through the third quarter, it woke up.

The rim squeezed when Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor tossed up layups. Paul started to cough the ball up, stepping out of bounds once, then bobbling it in another instance. The Celtics had played from behind most of the night, but when Rajon Rondo found Glen Davis for a baseline jumper that cut their deficit to 58-49, the momentum started to swing.

“I think the energy level changed,’’ Davis said. “We started doing things that we know how to do best and that’s play defense. We changed the tempo of the game, we made them uncomfortable with the things they were doing.’’

Urgency was clearly evident as they clawed for an 89-85 win, shaking off the demoralizing loss from the night before.

“After [Friday] night, you’ve got to come in here and lay it all out,’’ said Kevin Garnett.

Battling with Chicago and Miami for the top spot in the East, the win pushed the Celtics into a tie with the idle Bulls for the conference lead.

“Any win’s a satisfying win at this point,’’ said Garnett, who scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “Everybody needs wins and we’re no different from that. Tonight was just a momentum game. At the start of the game they grabbed the momentum, they took it and they ran. I thought we did a good job of fighting back.’’

The Celtics held the Hornets to 32.5 percent shooting in the second half, forcing six turnovers that they cashed in for 10 points. Their biggest stop came with the game in the balance when Ray Allen stripped Belinelli at one end, and the Celtics turned it into a Garnett 19-footer, putting them up, 85-81.

Allen and Davis, who each scored a team-high 20 points, both knocked down a pair of free throws to seal the game.

“I was hoping and praying that somebody would foul me,’’ Davis said. “I’m not the guy to pick on, especially in the clutch.’’

Though Paul put up 15 assists, he went 0 for 9 shooting.

When he was drawing up the game plan on the dry-erase board, Hornets coach Monty Williams said, “I didn’t plan on Chris not hitting a field goal.’’

Paul Pierce went 1 for 9 from the floor, but his one make was a 3-pointer that cut the Hornets’ lead to 81-75 with 5:27 left in the game.

“If your name was Paul tonight you struggled shooting the ball,’’ Rivers said.

Down 11 at the half and 15 in the third quarter, the Celtics seemed to be headed for their second straight double-digit loss when things started to click — not with the starters, but with the bench.

Delonte West scored 9 points (all in the second half) and Jeff Green scored 10, adding to Davis’s big night. They shot a combined 17 of 23.

The key was shortening the rotation, as if in a playoff game, mixing the reserves with starters, Rivers said.

“I’ve been stubborn trying to force rest with our guys,’’ Rivers said. “We wanted to make sure the bench wasn’t in with five bench guys. We wanted one or two starters in together and I thought that helped them.’’

The Celtics’ ups and downs have been directly related to defense. They held the Bucks to a franchise-low 56 points, but Houston put up 34 points in a quarter.

“It’s been inconsistent,’’ said Pierce. “It hasn’t been missing, it’s just been coming in spurts. It still came in spurts tonight. We’re trying to get back to how we played against Milwaukee at home, how we played against Indiana.

“When we get our defensive confidence going, it doesn’t matter what happens offensively.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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