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1.18.2008

Celtics Improve to 30-8, Prepare for Lakers

The Hawks tried everything. They attracted the largest crowd in franchise history (16,522), imported Laker mascot Dancing Barry and talked trash as they bolted to a 23-point first-half lead . . . but they still couldn't beat the Celtics .

Boston's 125-122 overtime victory last night was the Celts' 10th straight in the Omni. The Celtics are 5-0 against Atlanta this year and 24-3 against the Hawks in the last five seasons.

It figured to be just another mundane NBA rainy night in Georgia until the appearance of Barry, and before the Hawks burst to an unthinkable 70-47 second-quarter lead. Eddie Johnson & Co. had a fun time taunting the Celts for a while.

So did Barry, who was flown in from LA to help the Hawks beat the Celtics. He proclaimed, "I'm 6-2 lifetime against them. The people of Atlanta need me."

"I didn't like that," said Kevin McHale. "I didn't like him announcing his winning percentage against the Celtics. He wouldn't go over very big in Hibbing (Minn.), I'll tell you that."

You don't throw the Laker mascot in Boston's face before tapoff. Nor do you taunt the Celtics before the final buzzer. It was like waving a Patrick Sullivan doll in front of Matt Millen or saying "Niagra Falls" to Curly.

Larry Bird (41 points) was in one of his Charles Bronson moods after the awful first half, and scored 17 in the third quarter as the Celts trimmed 14 points off Atlanta's halftime margin. He got a lot of help from Scott Wedman, who hit 10 of 16 shots and scored a season-high 21. Boston shot 64 percent (28-44) in the second half and stormed ahead. One lasting image will be that of Bird giving the choke sign when Dominique Wilkins (36 points) missed the first of two free throws (he missed the second, too) with 1:06 left in regulation.

"We were mad," said McHale. "Everybody got mad and we came back."

"It was certainly one of the greatest comebacks I've ever been involved in. Larry Bird is just an inspirational leader, and it's great to have him on your team."

Coach K.C. Jones went even further in describing Boston's ninth win in the last 10 games. "It was the best we've ever played in the regular season," said Jones. "We had to come a great distance."

The Celts should have been dead tired against the young Hawks in overtime, but Boston had fought too long and too hard to fold. Bill Walton broke a 116-116 tie with a tap-in, then blocked an Eddie Johnson shot. When Dennis Johnson scored on a power drive, the Celts led, 120-116, and Atlanta called time with 2:33 left.

Kevin Willis cut it to two with a follow, and the Celts won in a hail of free throws - four by Bird.

The final period of regulation was even better than the overtime. The Celts trailed by 22 at the half but cut it to eight when Bird scored 17 in the third. A 14-0 burst by the Celts put Boston ahead in the middle of the fourth.

Then the Hawks went to work, and Atlanta led by five after a three-point play by Cliff Levingston. The Celts roared back with six straight, taking a 108-107 lead on a turnaround by Robert Parish (22 points, 11 rebounds) with 1:23 left.

The Hawks worked it in into Wilkins, who was fouled by McHale. McHale went to the bench with six personals, and Wilkins missed both. Bird put his hand to his throat, then hit a bomb with 48 seconds left and the Celts led by three.

Wilkins responded and tied the game with a three-pointer. Then Bird drew a foul from Wilkins and made both to give Boston a 112-110 lead with 28 seconds left.

DJ roared down the court and scored on a drive to tie it again. Boston called time with 0:20 showing.

DJ worked it out top and looked for Bird coming off a pick, but Bird was smothered by Wilkins. DJ went inside to Parish, who forced a long turnaround that missed as the buzzer sounded. Extra innings.

The Celts would rather forget the first half. Boston committed eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes, and the Hawks led 34-25 after one. Atlanta shot 64 percent in the first period. The lead peaked at 70-47 when Eddie Johnson scored on a drive. Atlanta settled for a healthy 70-48 halftime lead.

Bird exploded out of the locker room, scoring a dozen points in the first 4:38 of the second half. The Celts gladly settled for an 88-80 deficit at the end of three. Bird scored 17 in the period as the Celts outscored Atlanta, 32-18.

GLenn Rivers drove the Hawks to a 12-point lead early in the fourth, then the Celts exploded for 14 straight - six by Wedman. Boston led 98-96 with 5:10 remaining in regulation.

CELTICS PREPARE FOR LAKERS

Does Magic think the Lakers are better than the Celtics?

"Yeah," he says flashing what People Magazine should rate as one of the top 10 smiles. "I got to think that. If I was any different, I'd know we'd be in trouble. They think they're better than us and we think we're better than them."

"Sure, our eye drifts a little more to the Green," adds coach Pat Riley. "Our team got off very well this year, but Boston got off just as good.

"I think we have a little more quickness than they do. I think that's obvious. But they play more intelligently and methodically than we do . . . When it comes right down to it, we're a lot alike because we both try to get the ball inside when it matters most."

The Lakers are 32-7 and lead the Pacific Division by a laughable nine games. They are the defending world champs and, barring disaster, they'll be in the championship final for the sixth time in seven seasons. The Green enter the game with a 30-8 record.

The Celts and Lakers split two regular season games last year. They are 6-6 in regular season play since Bird and Magic burst into the league in 1979. The Lakers have won three of the last four regular season meetings between the two teams.

The Celtics have won nine of 10 since their nationally televised Christmas Day disgrace against the Knicks. Boston plays host to the world champion Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night, and Saturday's pulsating victory over the Hawks in the Omni indicates that the Celtics are ready for the Lakers.

Larry Bird's 41 points led the Celtics back from a 23-point first-half deficit in a game that was the mirror image of Boston's humiliating loss in New York.

While chestnuts roasted on open fires, the Celtics blew a 25-point lead in New York and lost in overtime. It was Boston's fifth loss in nine games and coach K. C. Jones was criticized for not using his bench during the slump.

The Celtics haven't been the same since. Jones has gone back to his bench and the Celtics have ripped nine of the last 10 opponents. If not for a controversial offensive foul called on Kevin McHale in Detroit, the Celtics might be carrying a 10-game winning streak into the Laker game.

Scott Wedman's turnabout typifies the sudden impact of Boston's bench. Wedman was shooting 41 percent after the Knick disaster and had made only four of 16 shots while scoring only seven points in a five-game stretch. Since Christmas, Wedman is shooting 58 percent (42-73), and averaging 8.8 points. He hit 10 of 16 shots and scored a season-high 21 against the Hawks Saturday.

"The other teams aren't paying much attention to me because they're keying on our big guys," noted Wedman. "That gives me an opportunity to make a difference."

Wedman wasn't too surprised to see the Celtics roar back from a 70-47 deficit in the Omni.

"Nobody on this team doubted we could come back," he said. "We just knew we had a chance and once you get within 10, you're there."

Bird's 17-point third quarter helped the Celtics cut a 22-point half-time deficit to 14 at the end of three. A 14-0 fourth- quarter explosion (six by Wedman) put the Celtics ahead.

Several factors contributed to Boston's second-half push. The Hawks had billed the game as a "franchise maker" and were talking it up before the opening tap. The presence of Lakers' mascot Dancing Barry was viewed as an insult by some Celtics and the Hawks asked for more trouble when they (particularly Eddie Johnson) taunted Boston during the big first half.

"They weren't about to build a franchise at our expense," said Dennis Johnson. "When they started talking about how this was their night we just decided to go at 'em a little."

"I couldn't believe it when they started yapping at me," added Robert Parish (20 points, 11 rebounds). "It kind of got me going."

Parish made eight of 11 shots in the second half. Boston shot 64 percent (28-44) after intermission.

"Atlanta went into the locker room at the half up 22 and thought the game was over," said McHale (20 points, 12 rebounds before fouling out in regulation). "That really fired us up. We came out in the second half determined to win the game."

Bird's rampage spoke for itself, and he added a silent slap by giving the choke sign when Dominique Wilkins (36 points) missed two straight free throws with 1:06 left in regulation.

Bird appears totally recovered from his lengthy shooting slump. He's shooting 55 percent (107-196) in his last 10 games while averaging 26.7 points per contest. He's scored 21 or more in 13 straight games and is tossing the long bombs the way he did last year. Boston's MVP is 7-15 from three-point range in his last four games. Meanwhile, McHale is shooting 61 percent (76-158) in his last 10 games and has scored at least 20 points in 14 of the last 15 games. Parish is shooting a not-too-shabby 59 percent (82-140) in his last 13 games . . . On the downside, Danny Ainge is hitting only 32 percent (9-28) in his last three starts and was shut out for the first time all season Saturday. Ainge had 12 assists against the Hawks, however . . . In back-to-back games in Indiana and Atlanta, Bill Walton hit 10 of 13 shots and had 13 rebounds and 7 blocks while playing a total of 45 minutes . . . Sam Vincent did not make the trip due to a knee bruise, and McHale is hurting with a sore left achilles . . . The Celtics are 30-8, but were 32-6 after 38 games last season.

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