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Celtics find .500 a satisfying number

Perseverance pays off as Pierce sets the pace

MINNEAPOLIS -- It was impossible not to notice the vast emotional gulf between teams with exactly the same records. The 24-24 Boston Celtics left the Target Center feeling confident, proud, and together. The 24-24 Minnesota Timberwolves left the same building with a hangdog look, wondering what is happening to what was supposed to be another special season.

"It's amazing," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said yesterday after his team had taken a 103-100 victory over the Wolves to pull to .500 for the first time since Nov. 21. "We're at .500 and ecstatic. They're at .500 and think the world is crumbling around them. It really isn't for them. And we want to do better. It's been a struggle. It's been a climb. And now we have to protect that number."

The Celtics finally hit the .500 mark after missing on their last three chances, all on the road, all against quality teams. They were on the road again this time, but the Timberwolves are in the middle of an absolutely brutal streak and do not rate as a quality opponent. Not now, anyway. Yesterday's loss was their fifth in a row, their longest skid in three years, and Paul Pierce (32 points) took notice during a break in the action that a lot of the energy in the Target Center was missing.

"It just seems like we can't catch a break right now," said the Wolves' Fred Hoiberg. "But a lot of that, we bring on ourselves."

Statistically, the Celtics were outshot, outrebounded, and outassisted. But they persevered, as they had here in each of their previous four visits, with some clutch plays down the stretch coupled with a few bonehead plays by the hosts, including two by the ostensibly solid Sam Cassell. The result was a third straight road win for the team that only recently had dropped nine in a row away from the FleetCenter.

"We're starting to pick it up on the road," said Pierce, who has had his troubles against the Wolves. He averaged only 15 a game last season against Minnesota. Yesterday, he had that many points in one quarter (the third) and the same number from the line.

The Celtics also got a big game from Gary Payton, who had 22 points and seven assists after spending most of Saturday in California tending to his ill mother. Raef LaFrentz had 15 rebounds.

This one was close the whole way. The Celtics led by 2 after one, by 3 at the half, and by a singleton after three. Minnesota, however, is nothing if not unspectacular with its back against the wall. The Timberwolves are 5-20 in games in which they trail after three quarters, including an unseemly 3-11 at home. Yesterday's defeat dropped them to 13-12 at home. That's two more losses than they had at home all last season.

The Celtics trailed only once in the second half -- and that was for one possession. Hoiberg nailed a trey -- Minny's first of the game -- to make it 76-75 late in the third. But Marcus Banks (a second-chancer after a big offensive rebound by Walter McCarty) converted a layup in the closing seconds to make it 77-76 after three. McCarty and Ricky Davis (12 points) then opened the fourth with hoops surrounding a Wally Szczerbiak turnover, and the Celtics protected the lead the rest of the way.

But they also got some help from the Timberwolves. With Boston clinging to a 95-94 lead, Cassell came down after a Davis airball and, in transition, hoisted an ill-advised trey. It boinged off the back rim. "That took the wind out of us," said coach Flip Saunders, who is feeling the heat for the first time in a long, long time.

The Wolves had another chance to take the lead, but Kevin Garnett (21 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 blocks) threw a silly crosscourt pass. Davis played the Rodney Harrison role and, although he missed the layup, Payton was there to clean it up. Then, on the Wolves' next possession, Trenton Hassell was fouled and missed them both.

Pierce (8 of 16) and Hassell then traded hoops when Cassell struck again -- for the Celtics. Moving down to double-team Pierce, he reached in for a stupid foul. Additionally, the foul put the Celtics in the bonus. With 1:26 left, Pierce calmly drained both shots and the Celtics led, 101-96. Pierce added two more free throws surrounding 4 Minny points and the Celtics then defended brilliantly when Minnesota needed a three to tie the game, forcing the Wolves to use the clock.

Cassell ended up hoisting a desperation 35-footer that went about 30 feet. That was typical of Minnesota's day -- and of its fortunes of late. No one in Boston has any sympathy.

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