After a lot of hard work, the final Celtics play could not have been easier. Paul Pierce inbounded the ball to Raef LaFrentz at the top of the arc. LaFrentz set a pick and quickly handed it back to Pierce, who drove left around the paint and scored the winning layup.
The Celtics' 90-89 victory over the Bobcats last night at the TD Banknorth Garden was reminiscent of their close early-season wins. Boston can only hope it is slowly, but surely, regaining the more competitive form it showed in early November.
The Celtics knew from experience that no lead was safe against the Bobcats. Then again, they never had much of a lead to work with, though they went ahead by as many as 7 points in the third quarter before entering the fourth with a 69-65 advantage. The stage was set for another fourth-quarter comeback by the Bobcats.
A few big stops late in the fourth appeared to build the Celtics' confidence. LaFrentz blocked a dunk attempt by Gerald Wallace. But Ricky Davis took a quick 3-pointer at the other end. Next, Pierce (27 points) stole the ball from Emeka Okafor, but Pierce could not convert a fast-break layup. It was only fitting that LaFrentz (22 points), who worked hard on the defensive end all night, hit a 3-pointer that put Boston ahead, 85-82. But the Celtics could not extend or even keep their lead.
A layup by Brevin Knight put Charlotte ahead, 86-85, with 1:28 left. On the Celtics' next possession, Knight stole the ball from Dan Dickau and went in for a layup that gave the Bobcats an 88-85 edge. Then, Davis missed a 22-footer, but the Celtics retained possession. Pierce could not complete a dunk, but he did get to the line, where he made one of two free throws. The Celtics got the ball back, but could not convert. LaFrentz fouled Okafor and the Charlotte power forward made one of two free throws with 43.4 seconds left to give the visitors an 89-86 lead.
Trailing by 3, Pierce opted to go inside for a layup. He made the shot, but could not draw enough contact for a 3-point play. The Bobcats got the ball back with 29 seconds left. The Celtics did not foul and got the ball back when with 5.1 seconds remaining when Knight appeared to travel. But upon consultation, the referees ruled a jump ball because Wallace, not Knight, had tapped the ball on the alleged travel. Davis got the jump ball giving Boston one last chance to win.
Doc Rivers went with character and defense in the first half, though the results didn't exactly show it as Charlotte, which shot 49 percent, entered halftime ahead, 48-47.
The visitors also claimed 12 second-chance points, as the Celtics continued to struggle on the glass. The only real positive for the Celtics was that no Bobcat player got into a productive rhythm. Wallace and Knight, who hurt the Celtics in the teams' first meeting, were kept relatively in check. The same for Melvin Ely off the bench.
Still, the Celtics struggled to keep pace offensively.
With Delonte West sidelined by a left hip pointer and Mark Blount benched for his recent poor rebounding, the Celtics relied heavily on Pierce, LaFrentz, and Davis. In fact, with the exception of a hook shot by Kendrick Perkins and 5 points from Al Jefferson, the three regular starters accounted for all of the Celtics' scoring. Boston also shot 49 percent and recorded 14 assists on 18 field goals in the first half.
In the first quarter, Boston seemed ready to make amends for its debacle in Atlanta and an overtime loss at Charlotte earlier this season. A quick 5-0 spurt started with a steal and 3-pointer by LaFrentz and finished with a 17-footer from Davis on the break. The run pushed Boston ahead, 12-6, with 8:11 left in the period. But when Perkins and Jefferson got into foul trouble, the relentless Bobcats caught up. Charlotte tied the game at 19 on a 23-footer from Keith Bogans. The Celtics stretched their lead to 6 points again, but could not shake the Bobcats, finishing the first ahead, 28-25.
The second produced more of the same with Boston again going ahead by 6 points (45-39) and Charlotte coming back. The Bobcats closed the first half with a 9-2 run capped by a Wallace layup. Charlotte went ahead by 1 point as the first half concluded and the crowd at the Garden became restless. But while fans could be dismayed at the halftime score, the Celtics' intensity and focus were markedly better than two road losses at Cleveland and Atlanta earlier in the week. And with the game close, the new rotation of character players would have their mettle tested in the second half.