C's Drop 4th Straight

March 2, 2002

Paul Silas, the coach of the Charlotte Hornets, had a treat last night. On March 1, in Game 58 of the season, he, at last, had his real team together for one night. Well, almost.

"Bryce isn't here," Silas said, referring to mop-up guard Bryce Drew, who was in Charlotte with an ear infection.

   Then, Silas chuckled. He could live without Drew.

Over the last four months, Silas has had to live without a lot of his key and not-so-key people. He made do without his leading scorer, Jamal Mashburn, who missed 42 games with an abdominal strain. He waited 37 games for defensive glue stick George Lynch to recover from foot surgery. He even had to endure a 15-game absence from old reliable David Wesley, who cracked a bone in his foot.

Now, everyone, except Drew, is back and the message from the FleetCenter last night could not have been clearer: Watch out. This is going to be one scary team in the playoffs if Silas doesn't have to endure any more absences.

"It's nice to look down our bench," he said after Charlotte crushed the Celtics, 100-87. "You see veterans. You see youth. You've got everything you really need."

He does right now. His team might have lost three of its last five, but, in Silas's mind, they were acceptable losses because the Hornets played well against some pretty good opponents (Lakers, Nets, Timberwolves). They have now had back-to-back obliterations of the Nets and Celtics, and, as Silas put it, "I like our team right now.

"I like what I see."

Jim O'Brien might say the same thing, but, right now, if he did, you'd have to measure his nose. These are teams going in different directions with very contrasting views. Last night's loss was the fourth straight for Boston. At 31-27, the Celtics are still tied for fourth in the conference with Orlando, but are only two games ahead of No. 7 Charlotte and three losses out of ninth.

Last night's loss looked a lot like the ones we've seen lately. Once again, there was utter domination inside by the opposition. The Hornets ruled the glass all night (the 49-43 final tally was wildly misleading) and had countless blocks, deflections, and redirections thanks to their collection of big men (Elden Campbell, Jamaal Magloire, PJ Brown).

They set the tone from the outset with a 10-0 run to open the game and never looked back. This was nowhere near the team the Celtics had beaten twice in Charlotte. This is a team that likes where it is and where it's going.

As for the Celtics, well, the best you can say is that Michael Jordan sure went down at the right time, didn't he? Those back-to-backs March 10-11 against the Wizards look to be a godsend. In between are three toughies - at Philadelphia Monday, home against road-weary Orlando Wednesday, and home against surprising Detroit Friday.

Home court, as we've seen, is no guarantee. The Celtics have lost their last three, and five of their last six, and are 17-10 at the FleetCenter. Last night, they never even had a lead, and, over the final three quarters, got the deficit into single figures for a mere 48 seconds - early in the second quarter.

As O'Brien put it, "I can't think of one [phase] that I would point to and say, 'We did well at that.' It was a bad basketball game for us."

Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers must be thinking they really got traded to Memphis. The Celtics are 0-4 since the trade with Phoenix and while it's not the fault of the newcomers, the team feels an urgency to get them involved to where they can be regular contributors. That is not easy at this time of year when, as a coach, you can be pulled in different directions by the desire to win games with the guys who got you there and the desire to bring along the new players.

The Hornets are adding guys as well, but these are guys who've been with them all season and understand what's going on. Even though Lynch is still rounding into shape, he has been a Hornet since October. Mashburn and Wesley know the routine. As Mashburn noted, "It's easy to add pieces at this time of year if they are guys who have already been here. There's no ego on this team. Everyone wants to win."

That's what every team wants. But the winning teams know when it's important to be on your game, to have your players integrated into the system, and to have everyone healthy. Some of that is out of everyone's control. Some of it is sheer good fortune. Some of it is sheer talent.

Right now, the Hornets look to be a team that has its eyes firmly on the prize and the know-how to get there. Paul Pierce talked gamely afterward about regaining what he called the Celtics' "war mentality," which, he admitted, had vanished recently.

"But," he added, "we are going to get it back."

The sooner, the better, because last night's opponent looks like it already has it back.

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