Wolves at door, but Celtics win
Pierce scores 12 in fourth to lift mates
MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe the Celtics needed it this way. Maybe they needed a close game. Maybe they needed to prove to themselves they were capable of executing in the fourth quarter instead of notching an easy victory over an overmatched team.
How else would you explain the Celtics blowing a 25-point lead against a 17-win team and then having to fight for their pride to secure an 85-82 victory last night at Target Center.
This team must really relish adversity, because it seemingly invited it by shutting down offensively for two quarters and allowing the upstart Timberwolves to take two leads in the final quarter. Paul Pierce, who was flat through the first three quarters, pulled the same act as he did last Monday in New York, carrying the Celtics with 12 fourth-quarter points to help them snap a two-game losing streak.
After dropping games to the Grizzlies and Bobcats last week, the Celtics needed a victory, any victory. So there were no apologizes after last night’s win, despite their two-quarter vacation in the Great Lakes.
“A win is a win. The first quarter would be our blueprint but after that I didn’t think we played very well,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “But I thought we had a terrific first quarter. And then I thought we started overthinking ourselves on the floor.’’
Pierce finished with 23 points and Kevin Garnett responded with 13 points and 13 rebounds in his return to Minneapolis. Garnett made two key baskets in the final three minutes to give the Celtics an 81-77 lead, and the Wolves went nearly four minutes without a field goal to waste a chance at the upset.
Delonte West sealed the victory by pulling down a key offensive rebound with 28.9 seconds left. He finished with 8 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds, and 2 steals in replacing Rajon Rondo, who sat out with a jammed right pinkie.
Afterward, the Celtics had no trouble displaying their satisfaction, given how poorly they executed offensively in the final three quarters. After taking a 32-13 lead and making 13 field goals after one period, the Celtics were 17 of 53 (32 percent) over the final three quarters.
The Timberwolves made some key defensive adjustments, relied on the midrange shooting of Michael Beasley, and chipped away until they finally led, 70-68, after a Darko Milicic layup with 8:07 left. The Celtics had an identical breakdown Friday against Charlotte, but last night they responded and turned Minnesota into a jump-shooting team. After Anthony Tolliver’s 3-pointer with 5:05 left, the Wolves didn’t record another field goal until Tolliver’s layup before the buzzer.
After looking disheveled in the fourth quarter of the previous two games, the Celtics ignored their offensive struggles and relied on their veterans to produce.
“It’s good to play in close games because you realize in the playoffs there are going to be a lot of close games,’’ said Pierce, who finished 6 of 16 from the field. “It’s all about execution, about being on the road. Although we should have been more consistent throughout the game, it could have been a double-digit win, but hey, we’ll take it.’’
The third quarter was eerily reminiscent to the fourth quarter against Charlotte. The Celtics looked uninterested, couldn’t hit easy shots, and the defense slipped, allowing Milicic and Tolliver to control the paint. Boston converted just 7 of 19 shots in the period while the defense melted and allowed the Wolves to tally 28 points.
As happened in the Jan. 3 meeting at TD Garden, the Celtics had no answer for Beasley, who beat Pierce at will with his quick first step and savvy midrange game. He carried the Wolves in the first three quarters, including a 3-pointer that reduced the lead to 60-57. Beasley led Minnesota with 28 points, but he took 28 shots.
Luke Ridnour erased the 25-point Celtics lead with a free throw to even the game at 62 with 14.2 seconds left in the period, threatening to put this one in the embarrassing category again.
After spending the first quarter and a half in cruise control, the final 2 1/2 quarters were an exercise in offensive ineptitude for the Celtics, who played strong defense most of the night but allowed the Timberwolves to stay close with seven 3-pointers and 17 offensive rebounds.
Instead of lamenting their breakdown, however, the Celtics chose to view this as a breakthrough.
“There was a point in the third quarter, and even the second quarter, when the ball got stagnant,’’ said Ray Allen, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting. “In the third quarter we didn’t make the shots that we wanted to make. But we were just trying to plug away and catch fire. We have to stick with what we’re doing.’’
The Celtics played the first quarter as if they heard Rivers’s criticisms clearly. They jumped to a 22-5 lead after a Garnett dunk with 5:42 left in the quarter. The Celtics were running crisp plays, and Allen was popping off screens and canning jumpers.
Yet, they allowed the Wolves to gather themselves and pound the ball into the paint. Rivers’s mood changed late in the quarter when the Celtics’ defense began slipping and they were unable to get stops.
After Boston began the second quarter with a 6-0 run, the Wolves ended the period with a 21-9 run and cut the deficit to 47-34. In one sequence, Rivers chewed out Nenad Krstic for getting beat defensively by Tolliver, who came off the bench for 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.