That is both the beauty and the curse of the NBA. It was equally thus for New Jersey, which had more of a right to celebrate than the Celtics had to commiserate. The Nets have been in a perpetual state of exasperation this season, almost inventive in their ways to lose.
But they dodged one last night. They got a gift hoop at the buzzer from Keith Van Horn and left town with a 99-97 victory over the Celtics, snapping a six-game losing skid.
The Celtics felt they let one slip away and they're probably right, although they spent most of the game playing catch-up, shot poorly, and were outrebounded. Their biggest lead was 2 points, while New Jersey led at each checkpoint and by as many as 12 at one point.
Still, Boston was in position to close it out, but Paul Pierce picked a bad time to turn into Vin Baker at the free throw line. With the Celtics leading, 97-96, Pierce bricked two shots with 38.9 seconds left.
"Rookie, rookie," the Nets' Jayson Williams said when asked if he was surprised that Pierce had missed the freebies. "He's a good player, but he's a rookie. Hey, I probably would have missed them, too."
Pierce faced the music like the savvy veteran he seems to be.
"I have to keep my head up," he said. "We had the game and I probably could have iced it. It was a heartbreaker. But we gotta move on."
Pierce, who had 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 steals, and a blocked shot, was in select company in that final minute. The redoubtable Van Horn, a 79 percent free throw shooter, also missed two. Those came with the Nets leading, 95-93. Unlike Pierce, Van Horn got vindication.
"I knew he would make the winning basket once he missed those free throws," said Williams. "That's why he's the great player he is."
Williams added that the win "took a gorilla off our backs."
After Pierce's misses, the Nets regained the lead on a Chris Gatling putback. Kenny Anderson (16 points, 5 assists) then missed a jumper, but Van Horn fouled Andrew DeClercq on the rebound. DeClercq made one to create the seventh, and final, tie, 97-97, with 7.2 seconds left.
New Jersey has lost its share of games like this already. The Nets watched Mark Jackson throw in a prayer in Indiana and lost a similarly tough one at home to Houston. They claim they were not thinking bad thoughts at this time, but if they were, who could blame them?
"My mentality," said coach John Calipari, "is how do we win?" Unfortunately, Coach Cal has been getting a blank response on most nights. But this time, his team had the last shot. Or shots.
Eric Murdock had the first opportunity, a wide-open baseline runner from 10 feet. It bounced off the rim, to the weak side, where Van Horn retrieved it after (a) pushing off (the Celticsversion) or (b) getting to the ball because it bounced over everyone (Van Horn's version).
"I didn't push off - watch the replay," Van Horn said.
He then took a fallaway, the ball leaving his hands with three-10ths of a second left. It hit the front rim, bounced up, and then fell through. The horn had sounded and the FleetCenter went from raucous to silent in a heartbeat.
"I thought it was short," Van Horn said. "But we needed that bounce."
Added Calipari, "We deserved that bounce."
The bounce ended an exciting evening. Tony Battie (35 minutes, 12 points, 4 blocks) nailed down a spot on the team highlight film with a flying, one-handed dunk off a Ron Mercer miss. Mercer went 39 minutes after missing two games with a sprained ankle. Antoine Walker had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and made two big free throws with 1:17 left. Walter McCarty made a brief cameo five minutes, his first action since a seven-minute stretch in the season opener.
But most of that was forgotten in the gloom of the locker room. In a short season, you need to win the ones at home. The Celtics can ease the sting by winning tonight, on the road, which was their collective mindset as they left the building. They had no other choice.