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Celtics snap out of it

Pierce stands, delivers against woeful Magic

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In the wake of a disgraceful, second-half collapse against the Knicks Monday night, Paul Pierce issued a challenge. He wanted to see more toughness and consistency from the Celtics. He repeated the challenge before the Celtics took the floor against the Magic last night at TD Waterhouse Centre. In a close contest against Orlando, Pierce's skills were tested in the fourth quarter.

After squandering an 11-point, third-quarter lead,

the Celtics demonstrated the type of attitude and fortitude that Pierce desired. The way Boston played down the stretch in defeating Orlando, 94-92, showed the toughness of which Pierce spoke. The Celtics snapped a four-game losing streak and extended the Magic's skid to 14 games. Pierce replaced words with action in the fourth, scoring 15 of the Celtics' final 23 points, including 9 straight at one point.

"I just took advantage of my opportunities," said Pierce (30 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists). "I haven't really been playing well. I've been saying to myself I've been letting this team down. We had to somehow, some way come out of this building with a win and I just took it upon myself and challenged my teammates today to go out there and get the job done. If we were going to do lose, it wasn't going to be because of something I didn't do."

When Pierce concluded his run, Boston held an 86-79 lead with 4 minutes 35 seconds remaining. The Magic closed within 3 points (86-83) when Juwan Howard scored on a fast-break layup with 3:59 remaining. But Tracy McGrady (24 points, 6 assists) could not perform the same heroics for the Magic as Pierce did for the Celtics. With 3:11 left, McGrady fouled out trying to stop a Mike James layup. James made both free throws and pushed Boston ahead, 90-83.

Still, Orlando (1-14) was not about to give up. Gordan Giricek hit a 3-pointer with 2:11 remaining to bring Orlando within 2 (90-88). Pierce came back and hit a pair of free throws to make it a 4-point game. A controversial tip by Donnell Harvey brought the Magic within 2 again. The crowd of 13,208 sensed an end to the Magic's misery, but a clutch 17-footer by Tony Battie off a perfect feed from Pierce stretched the Celtics' advantage to 94-90 with 1:03 to go.

An 8-foot hook shot by Drew Gooden with 27.4 made it a one-possession game with 27.4 seconds remaining, but that was the way it would remain as Boston (6-8) hung tough, despite committing a shot-clock violation on its final possession. The violation left the Magic with 3.4 seconds to find a winning shot. With the Magic out of timeouts, Tyronn Lue hoisted a desperation 39-footer as time expired.

"I thought we showed good mental toughness," said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien. "I thought our guys were really hungry, even when [the Magic] came back in the third quarter. Our guys were very focused in the huddle, very zeroed in on defending and doing what was necessary to get a win."

The Celtics entered the third quarter determined to avoid a repeat of Monday night. All went well during the early portion as Boston opened up a 10-point lead with a 10-0 run. The Celtics increased their lead to 11 (68-57) when Vin Baker completed a 3-point play.

But a losing streak that dates to Oct. 30 provides powerful motivation and that's precisely what Orlando had in mind. The Magic rallied behind a 12-1 run that closed the quarter. The third ended the same way as the second, in a tie (69-69).

"You don't like moral victories, but we have taken a huge step forward," said McGrady. "We're looking like a team now, the effort is definitely there. We've just got to find a way to win a game. I guarantee that we're definitely going to get over this and get on a winning streak and get back on track."

Meanwhile, the Celtics hope the win represents a reversal of fortunes. In addition to the mental toughness Boston demonstrated down the stretch and the way they hustled after loose balls, there were other positive signs. Boston shot 48 percent, posted 16 points on the break, recorded 21 assists, and committed just 13 turnovers. Baker (19 points, 7 rebounds, season-high 5 assists) and Eric Williams (15 points, including 9 for 12 from the line in the first half) joined Pierce as double-figure scorers. And the Celtics did not experience a precipitous drop in performance from quarter to quarter or half to half. Boston entered the break tied, 49-49.

"We knew they were going to be hungry and we were going to get their best game," said Pierce. "They came out with a great sense of urgency. But I'm just happy the way we played overall. All four quarters. We did what we had to do. Going into Thanksgiving, I can sleep tonight."

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