C's End Road Trip with a W


C's End Road Trip with a W

LOS ANGELES - There was a distinct air of inevitability about this one. These are two teams in different states of health going in opposite directions in the second half of the season. And in a city built on hopes and dreams, there were absolutely no surprises at the Staples Center last night.

The Celtics led for virtually the entire 48 minutes and closed their five-game road trip with a methodically efficient 104-76 victory over the reeling Clippers before a pro-Celtic sellout gathering of 19,328.

The Celtics closed the trip with two wins (over likely nonplayoff teams) after losing three straight (to two likely playoff teams). They also completed a 4-0 sweep of the Los Angeles teams for the first time since 2001-02 (although they got the Lakers pre-Pau and a Clippers team last night that was hopelessly overmatched).

Boston led by 6 after one, by 9 at the half, and then blew it open in the third, using a 14-0 run to take a 75-51 lead with a shade less than three minutes to play in the period. At the end of three, it was 77-57, and even the notoriously early-leaving Los Angeles fans didn't need an excuse to hit the Harbor Freeway at that point.

You almost got the feeling that the only people left in the building at the end of the game were Celtics fans, soon-to-be Celtics fans, and Gabe Pruitt's extended family. Even Gabe got some playing time - 10 minutes worth - for the first time since Jan. 29. Scot Pollard did not, much to the chagrin of fans who chanted, "We want Pollard,'' with 8 minutes left.

The victory improved the Celtics' record against the Western Conference to 18-3.

Boston got 17 points from Paul Pierce, who played only 27 minutes, as Doc Rivers's rotation reflected the fact that this was (a) the last game of a trip and (b) the second of a back-to-back. Ray Allen (15 points) was the only starter to play more than 30 minutes. Kevin Garnett (11 points, 6 rebounds) played just 24 minutes and, along with Pierce, watched the fourth quarter from the bench. James Posey also had 17 for the Celtics, matching his season high.

The Celtics shot 55.1 percent for the game, their second straight strong offensive performance, while holding the Clippers to 40.0 percent, their second straight strong defensive showing. All in all, not a bad way to end a trip that started out with three losses.

The injury-ravaged Clippers were without Chris Kaman (back) and Sam Cassell (wrist) to add to the long-term losses of Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston, neither of whom has played a game this season. Coach Mike Dunleavy has used 22 starting lineups this season, which is absurd, and has not had one starting five for more than 11 games. By contrast, Rivers's preferred starting five took the floor for the 38th time last night.

Rivers was hoping for some first-period life, which had been missing all trip and especially the last two games. The Celtics trailed the Suns by 11 at the end of one in Phoenix and were down 16 after one to the Trail Blazers before rallying for the victory. In fact, the Sunday victory over Portland represented Boston's largest comeback of the season (17 points). Previously, the biggest comeback had been 12 points against the Pistons. They just haven't been down by double digits a lot this season.

The coach got his wish, as did many in the Staples Center, who openly cheered for the Celtics and were wearing green. The Celtics again played well at both ends in the first (helped on the defensive end by some truly awful Clipper shooting) and led, 23-17, after one. Boston shot 52.6 percent and held the Clips to 36.4 percent. (Cuttino Mobley and Corey Maggette were 1 for 10. You can see why Dunleavy pushed hard for getting Mike Miller at the trade deadline.)

Then Dunleavy emptied his bench to start the second quarter, unveiling a D-League dream team that included the likes of Quentin Ross, Dan Dickau, and Josh Powell. The Celtics needed only 3 1/2 minutes to push the lead into double digits on back-to-back 3-pointers by James Posey and Ray Allen. The lead eventually reached 13 after Leon Powe accounted for 5 straight points - a macho 3-point play off an Allen feed and a rim-rattling jam off a pretty pick-and-roll.

But then the Celtics got a first-hand look at a guy they seriously considered in last year's draft, ex-Florida Stater Al Thornton. He's been tremendous lately, averaging 20.6 points over the previous five games. After a slow start, he connected on a couple of acrobatic hoops and also collected what was a game-high 6 rebounds in just 13 minutes. His two hoops cut the Boston lead back into single figures, which is where it stood at the break, with the Celtics leading, 45-36.

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