Pierce pours in 36
His season high in points lifts the Celtics
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Three times this month, the Celtics have been in a position to take over first place in the Atlantic Division. But that goal seemed an ocean away last Friday as the Celtics lost Mickael Pietrus to a concussion and were routed in the second half by the 76ers.
Two games later, though, the Celtics finally were able to tie the Sixers.
The Celtics took a 102-95 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats Monday night, tying Philadelphia for the division lead, which would guarantee at least a No. 4 playoff seed.
But the accomplishment provided little sense of satisfaction for the Celtics (27-22), who struggled against the Bobcats (7-40), the worst team in the league.
“At same time, we haven’t beat Philadelphia yet,’’ captain Paul Pierce said. “And if comes down to a tie record they have the advantage on us.’’
Pierce (a season-high 36 points and 10 rebounds) led the way in a game the Celtics seemed capable of turning into a blowout.
After going on a 20-2 run to take a 33-15 first-quarter lead, the Celtics squandered most of their advantage by halftime. But Rajon Rondo’s direction from the point and finishing by Pierce and Kevin Garnett (24 points) carried the Celtics in the second half.
“I didn’t even mention it,’’ coach Doc Rivers said of the division standings. “For us, we’ve got to keep plugging along and playing the game. I really don’t focus on it right now. We have 17 games left, so it would be nice to get.
“We’re just hanging in there. We said it early on, since the All-Star break, you see it - we don’t play well every night, but we win some of the game we don’t play well in. We’re grinding games out. With all the injuries and everything, they’re giving you everything they have. And, as a coach, I don’t know what more I could ask for.’’
The Celtics dominated early, continuing a trend - they opened the previous three games with first-quarter advantages of 35-29 (Milwaukee), 32-26 (Philadelphia), and 27-12 (Washington).
But the second unit could not keep up as Charlotte rallied within 52-50 at halftime.
Rivers soon realized he was going to have to stick with the starters - the Bobcats’ bench would go on to outscore the Celtics’ reserves, 59-9.
And with Rondo choreographing and Avery Bradley and Pierce finishing, the Celtics regained command early in the second half. Brandon Bass’s jumper made it 65-54 with 8:56 remaining in the third.
But the outcome was still in doubt in the late going as Gerald Henderson (21 points) rallied the Bobcats. Finally, the result was clinched as Rondo rebounded a Garnett miss and found Pierce for a layup to make it 97-91 with 1:47 remaining, then Garnett sank a jumper for a 99-92 edge with 1:13 left.
“They were great [Sunday] night [against Washington] and tonight they didn’t have a great one,’’ Rivers said of the second unit. “So, you have to lean on your starters. That’s what’s so great about back-to-backs - if they just play well in one of the two, you’re good. [Sunday] night, our starters played 23 minutes and our bench played a lot. Tonight it was the reverse. That’s the type of season it’s been.
“That Charlotte second unit is an aggressive offensive unit. And I don’t think our guys met their intensity.’’
The Celtics can jump on top depending on the results of the Philadelphia-Cleveland contest Tuesday and their home game against Utah Wednesday. Ray Allen (ankle), who has missed three successive games, could return for the game against the Jazz.
The Rondo-Avery Bradley backcourt was effective for the second consecutive night. Bradley (40 minutes, 26 seconds) led the team in playing time and had 11 points, including 5 in a 54-second span early in the second half.
“I don’t know if we respected their bench as much,’’ Pierce said of the Bobcats. “They got open 3s and it was pretty much their energy that changed the game.
“We can’t play in spurts. We’re trying to build for the playoffs - it’s good we can build big leads. We give them up and build them back up again. In order to win in the playoffs you’ve got to start building habits right now. When you have a chance to put a team away you have to do it. And that’s what we’re trying to get to.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.