A Statement Game for Da Green
March 14, 2002
As far as Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker know, last night's game between the Celtics and Nets was an example of playoff basketball. The cocaptains have never been to the postseason, so they could only guess that the intensity will be similar in late April. They presume that players will dive after loose balls in the first quarter, that the crowd will care about every possession, that comfortable leads will be hard to come by.
With a 97-89 win over conference-leading New Jersey, Boston is entering unchartered territory. The Celtics are 10 games over .500 for the first time this season. They have won 37 games for the first time since the 1992-93 season. They have tied a season high with their sixth straight win. They have a shot at finishing better than .500 on the road for the first time in more than a decade. They are a mere three games out of first place in the East. It's all heady stuff for a team that started the season just hoping to make the playoff cut.
"The sky's the limit to how good we can be," said Walker (30 points, 8 rebounds). "We feel like we're just scratching the surface as to how good we can be as a team. We've got a real chance of winning the Atlantic Division. We've got to shoot for that. We've got to set our goals that high. Obviously, we need New Jersey to fall on their face a little bit and when we lock up head-to-head, we've got to beat them."
While the Nets did not exactly tumble, the Celtics did get their desired result in the third matchup of the season. (Boston holds the series lead, 2-1, with another regular-season matchup scheduled for April.) The contest was close throughout and no lead was safe, not even the 8-point (88-80) advantage Boston held with 4 minutes 45 seconds left. New Jersey responded with a 9-1 run, capped by a 21-footer on the fast break by Jason Kidd that tied the game, 89-89, with 1:53 left.
The Celtics were at their best with the game on the line. Their defense shut down the Nets. Their offense scored the final 8 points. Kenny Anderson found Eric Williams (12 points) in the corner for a 3-pointer. Then, Walker hit Anderson for a clutch 17-footer that put Boston ahead, 94-89, with 50.6 seconds left. Anderson (7 points, 10 assists) stood with his arms outstretched soaking in the cheers of 16,143 fans after hitting the shot. A 3-pointer by Walker set the final margin of victory.
"I don't know what a playoff atmosphere feels like because I've never been there," said Williams. "But the referees were letting us play. It was bloody. Guys were getting knocked off their butts. Both teams played hard and that's what you're going to get during this time of the season. You can't complain. You've just got to go out there and battle. We stuck in there to the end. We made a run. They made a run and we stuck in there for victory at the end."
Success down the stretch from the arc was indicative of a game-long trend for the Celtics. They shot 58.3 percent from 3-point range (14 for 24), which was better than their 40 percent from the floor and nerve-racking 62.5 percent from the free throw line. The Nets were about even with the Celtics in accuracy from the floor, though all five starters finished in double figures, with point guard Kidd (23) the high scorer and rebounder (13). Still, Boston won the battle of the boards, 42-41, behind 12 from Vitaly Potapenko.
Although from the outset the Nets presented enough challenges in the form of assists from Kidd, inside force from Kenyon Martin (14 points), and outside shots from Keith Van Horn (15 points), Pierce spent the first quarter manufacturing one more obstacle. He picked up two early fouls and played just 14 minutes in the first half. But Boston didn't falter in his absence, keeping the game close and taking a 48-44 lead at the break.
Pierce (32 points) called the victory "a statement game," but it was more than a message to the rest of the Eastern Conference that the Celtics are coming on strong. It was a sign to the Celtics themselves that they are a very good team, with as good a chance as the Nets or the Pistons or the Bucks of winning the East.
"This is the most wins I've had since I've been here," said Pierce. "I want more. I'm greedy. I want to win the rest of the games. To be on a six-game winning streak is lovely, but I want to keep it going."
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