If you haven't learned by now that you can't - can't - leave a Celtics game until it's honest-to-goodness over, that message was again drilled home last night. What were those fans thinking when they headed to the exits with 2 minutes 46 seconds to play and the Celtics down by 5?
They missed a Celtics comeback that, much to the locals' disappointment, fell short. Paul Pierce's 20-footer at the buzzer was a shade off and the Celtics fell, 100-99, to the Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony hit the winning hoop, a 19-foot jumper with 3.6 seconds to play. Anthony finished with 25 points.
Those fans who left missed a rousing rally. The Celtics, who went more than four minutes without scoring down the stretch, awoke to score 6 straight points, taking a 99-98 lead when Pierce (31 points) made two free throws with 10.7 seconds remaining. All Boston needed was one stop for a most rewarding victory. They couldn't get it.
Anthony came off a Kenyon Martin pick - Mark Blount did not pop out quickly enough - and drained the jumper. Pierce's last-second chance was close, but bounced off as the horn sounded.
The victory was only the second in Boston for a Denver team since 1990-91 and only the second, anywhere, against the Celtics in their last 12 meetings. Martin had 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 blocks while Marcus Camby had 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Anthony also had 11 boards; Denver had a 46-42 rebounding advantage.
Ricky Davis had 18 points for Boston, 13 in the fourth. It was his driving reverse layup that started the Celtics' rally. Two free throws by Gary Payton (11 points, 10 assists) made it a 1-point Denver lead and then Pierce's two put the Celtics in front for the first time since 89-88. That lead didn't last and the 99-98 lead didn't either.
Both teams had cases for circuit overload coming into the game. The Nuggets not only had played (and lost) the night before, they were in the midst of the franchise's longest road trip (seven games in 11 days) in 15 years. The Celtics were just coming off a pretty grueling trip of their own (five games in nine days) and had a longer-than-anticipated flight home. "The flight back," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "was horrendous." That might explain the second quarter, which was, to be frank, brutal. The Celtics ended up trailing by only 7 points at the break and that was cause to break out the Brut and the tickertape. That's because they shot 5 for 19 in the period and went the first 7:19 without a basket, missing their first 11 shots. They also had one stretch that resulted in turnovers in four straight possessions.
The Celtics' bench, so much a part of their recent success, was invisible. Frequent flyer Tony Allen was grounded. Al Jefferson played seven uneven minutes. And Davis, on the first anniversary of his trade to Boston, made only one hoop, that coming in the final minute of the half.
But Denver was only marginally better. The Nuggets led thanks to a 13-0 run in the second that coincided with the Celtics' offensive drought. Earl Boykins had 5 points in the run while Martin, Fransisco Elson and DerMarr Johnson added single hoops. The Celtics' only scoring during the first 6 1/2 minutes was on a Jefferson free throw.
The Denver run made it 39-27 and the Nuggets, despite seven second-quarter turnovers, managed to stay ahead. (They blew an 18-point, second-half lead the night before in Philly.) Andre Miller led the Denver attack with 16 points, but his best basket, a 75-foot heave that hit nothing but net, came too late at the end of the first quarter. Anthony added 9 points, but was only 3 for 8. KMart couldn't find the hole (3 for 10) but did have seven rebounds.
Pierce led the Celtics with 20 points, scoring 10 in each quarter. Blount had 10 points and Raef LaFrentz seven rebounds.
The first quarter was pretty much a mirror job. Both teams were 10 for 23 from the field. Both teams were 4 for 4 from the line. The Celtics managed to emerge with a 26-24 lead, thanks to two Pierce treys. The Celtics also were moving the ball, registering nine assists for their 10 hoops.
But soon followed the prolonged scoring drought and the Nuggets were able to capitalize. The Celtics, however, saw only a small deficit at the break, which had to be encouraging given the way they played.
Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik made a curious move early in the third, substituting for Anthony just 2:25 into the period. Anthony was not in foul trouble. His man (Pierce) had made one basket. The Nuggets led by 5 at the time. Anthony did not return until the 6:36 mark, by which time the Denver lead was still 5 _ but was about to disappear.
The Celtics caught a break when LaFrentz and Camby were tied up for a jump ball with one tick left on the 24-second clock. The clock was re-set to five seconds, LaFrentz got the tip, and Martin stupidly fouled Blount some 15 feet from the basket. Blount made one, missed the second, but LaFrentz got the rebound, made the shot, and the Celtics had cut the deficit to 62-60. But Davis (a 3-point play) and Pierce (an off-tackle cut to the hoop) gave the Celtics their first lead since 27-26.
Denver was now going through what the Celtics went through in the second. A Pierce free throw with 3:29 left in the quarter made it 66-64, finishing a 10-2 Boston run. Denver went 4 1/2 minutes without a basket, but stayed close due to free throws.
And then Anthony went to work. Maybe he needed the rest. He scored the Nuggets final 8 points of the quarter, all in the final 80 seconds, and that allowed Denver to retake the lead. He had 12 in the period, 21 in the game after three. The Celtics, whose biggest lead in the quarter was 2 points, entered the fourth trailing, 77-73.