Celtics Outlast Cavs

February 8, 1999

Celtics Outlast Cavs

   You remember those bullet polls showing so many fans not caring if the NBA ever played another game and wishing it just would go away? This was their night.

The Cavaliers and Celtics set back David Stern's goodwill reconstruction plan a few light years last night with a truly noxious performance before a near sellout of hostages at the FleetCenter. In a game no one deserved to win, the Celtics outlasted the Cavs, 77-73.

This was as close to consumer fraud as you're going to see, especially if you happen to have a vested interest in the fortunes of the Cavaliers. They scored 32 points in the first quarter - and 41 in the final three. They had 13 field goals in the first quarter - and 14 in the final three. They shot 76.5 percent in the first quarter - and 24.5 percent in the final three.

"We have to grow up and educate ourselves as to what's right and what's wrong," Cavs coach Mike Fratello said. "We had a chance to win. Unfortunately, we made too many mistakes."

No kidding, coach. But the Celtics were just as bad. The teams combined for 50 turnovers, 52 field goals, and 33 assists.

From the Celtics' standpoint, however, this was a big win. Huge. Rick Pitino even used the word "elated" to describe how he felt, and that was on the mark because the Celtics couldn't have beaten Seton Hall the way they played.

He also was elated for another reason. You hate to even use the words "must win" in Game 2, even in a 50-game season. But with the next six on the road, and 15 of the next 20 away from Boston, Pitino did not want his team to leave town 0-2 at the FleetCenter.

"If we're going to be realistic about the season, you can't start 0-2 at home," he said.

He had said earlier that the opening-night loss to Toronto was "the biggest disappointment in my 25 years of coaching," which might be a bit hyperbolic. He was referring to the disappointment he felt not simply with the performance of his team, which had been mauled, but because of the luminous presence of Red Auerbach (who also was there last night and probably called for the blinders) and the returning fans and all the hoopla.

"I was discouraged we let the fans down," he said.

Who knows what mood swing would have followed had not Paul Pierce rescued the team down the stretch? The Celtics were severely depleted, taking the floor without Ron Mercer (knee), Walter McCarty (toe), Andrew DeClercq (back), and Popeye Jones (thigh). They got abused in the first quarter by Zydrunas Ilgauskas, falling behind by 11. They trailed by 5 after one, by 3 at the half, and by 3 after three. They led only once in the middle two quarters.

The Cavaliers wanted this one just as badly and, for a while, looked like they'd get it. They had lost the night before in Atlanta and, despite their odious play, might well be 1-1 today had Pierce not abused Cedric Henderson, not used Shawn Kemp as a launch pad (there's plenty of available space there) on a critical play, or not made 9 of 10 free throws in the last five minutes. The rookie also got a big rebound in traffic in the final minute.

"Coach Pitino talks about smelling the ball, and I think I'm pretty good at it," said Pierce, who had 19 points. "I guess that's a gift that I have. How can I explain it? I don't know if it's hard work or a natural gift."

The cerebral rook had 15 in the fourth, which matched the Cleveland output, with the biggest hoop coming with 40 seconds left. Boston trailed, 73-72, and Eric Riley (40 minutes of yeoman work in the trenches) missed both free throws. But Pierce went right around Kemp and tipped the ball in off the glass. That gave Boston the lead for good, 74-73. (Pierce also had scored the team's previous 7 points, all from the line.)

"I just tried to slide in and get my hand on the ball," Pierce said. "I tried to just keep it alive, hoping one of my teammates might get it and put it back in."

Kemp (18 points) was then smothered on the Cavs' next possession and missed a shot. Pierce got the rebound, was fouled, and made both freebies. Cleveland then fittingly botched two 3-pointers, one a terrific look from bomber extraordinaire Wesley Person. The Cavs deserved what they got.

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