Celtics have the knack

February 27, 1999 
 Celtics have the knack

   The Celtics won a game last night and they won it convincingly. If you are a fan of the team in green-and-white shamrocked shorts, that probably makes you happy. And if you want to stay that way, you must agree to do something. You must promise to memorize the box score of the Celtics' 94-80 win over the Knicks at the FleetCenter.

That's not to say the latest stat sheet is a work of art. In fact, if taken out of context, it would certainly repulse a basketball purist. It was impressive because the Celtics, in front of 18,624 fans, were able to put up some scary numbers and still even their record at 5-5. 

They shot 41 percent. They made 58 percent of their free throws. Their most recent All-Star, Antoine Walker, was 9 of 26 from the floor. They took 25 3-pointers and made 10. Bruce Bowen took seven shots and missed them all ("I can't believe I was 0 for 7," he said). Paul Pierce had 24 points and 7 rebounds, but Rick Pitino said it was far from the rookie's best game.

So maybe you're wondering how the Celtics beat the Knicks for the third consecutive time, following a five-year winless streak.

"We played against a fatigued basketball team," Pitino said of the New Yorkers, who played against the Timberwolves Thursday night in New York. Later, the coach practically apologized for his team's conditioning and shot selection. "Every time we got in trouble, we seemed to make a big 3," Pitino explained. "But we were taking that shot because we were tired, not because it was our best shot."

Pitino went on to say that the Celtics could be atop the Atlantic Division this morning if they were able to take last season's conditioning and merge it with this season's talent.

"He's a great motivator," Pierce said of his coach, after being told that his 42-minute, 24-point effort wasn't necessarily viewed as a tour de force. "He feels like we can reach another level, and he is trying to get us to do it."

What Pitino didn't mention is that his young team reached that level at two key moments: at the beginning and end of last night's game. The Knicks entered the fourth quarter trailing, 82-71. They ended the game with 80 points. The Celtics hadn't held an opponent to a 9-point fourth quarter in 11 years. Last night was only the fourth time in team history an opponent was so weak in the final quarter. At the beginning of the night, the youthful Celtics built two 17-point leads simply by doing what the Knicks don't do often. They ran.

And then there was rebounding. You know that the Celtics are the smallish men of the NBA, lacking a dominating center. You know the Knicks have Patrick Ewing, who is a dominating center. But the Celtics outrebounded the Knicks, 46-38. Pierce and Walker combined for 18; Ewing had 12.

"There was no excuse for [ last night] ," Ewing said. "They dominated the boards."

They also dominated the third quarter, which began with the Knicks trailing, 56-50, and ended with the visitors thinking about their next game in Detroit. That's when the Celtics brought out their press and forced New York into a sketchy offense. We all know that point guards are supposed to lead offenses. But how can they lead when they don't have the ball? Charlie Ward and Chris Childs had 11 turnovers between them, far too high for point men.

But even with the shaky ballhandling, the Knicks were still down only 6, 66-60, with five minutes left in the third quarter. Sixty seconds later, Pierce made a 3-pointer. And 60 seconds after that, the rookie made another. And less than 60 seconds after that, he made yet another.

That did it for Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. He hadn't been feeling well earlier in the day, bothered by a stomach virus. He called time after the shot and the jubilant Pierce waved at the ball, waved at the fans, and gave the metaphorical bye-bye to New York.

"I like him a lot," Kenny Anderson said of Pierce. "He's not cocky or anything like that. He doesn't walk around here with his nose stuck in the air. He wants to learn."

One thing he has already learned is simple: He can shoot; when he is open he should do it.

"I was sort of feeling it and I said, 'What the hey? Shoot it,' " he said.

The stat sheet will tell you that the Knicks shot a better percentage. It will show decent numbers for Ewing (20 points) and Allan Houston (17). But it will not tell you that the Celtics entered the game one game under .500 and left it heading for New Jersey, trying to scale the .500

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