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Celtics run out of gas in the fourth

MILWAUKEE -- The most tangible symbol of the Celtics' fourth-quarter failure came when Paul Pierce stepped to the line with 12 seconds remaining.

Moments earlier, he had up-faked Joe Smith and drawn a foul at the 3-point arc. Pierce went to the line for three free throws with Boston trailing by 3 points. The Celtics captain missed his first two and made his third, essentially erasing any last hope of defeating the Bucks.

But long before Pierce stepped to the line, the Celtics should have, could have, put the game away. The contest seemed there for the taking, but Boston simply could not come up with the big plays.

Instead, Milwaukee hit the big fourth-quarter shots (most of them 3-pointers), made its free throws down the stretch, and prevailed, 100-94, in the tightly contested conclusion of a home-and-home, back-to-back series. After trailing by as many as 15 points early in the second, Boston built a 7-point (45-38) halftime lead and entered the fourth ahead, 73-67. But no cushion is too big for the current version of the Celtics.

"First, we took their confidence from them," said Mike James (team-high 23 points). "But they started gaining momentum. It's tough to beat a team at home when that team starts gaining momentum and the crowd starts getting behind them."

And that's exactly what happened. A second straight 3-pointer by Toni Kukoc tied the game at 77 with 8 minutes 26 seconds left. From that point on, the Celtics were in an unfavorable position before a crowd of 18,022 at the Bradley Center. The teams traded 3-pointers, with Milwaukee going 4 for 7 from the arc in the fourth. Michael Redd hit a 27-footer that put Milwaukee ahead for good with 3:24 to go.

"It was a hard-fought game on both ends of the court," said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien. "They were able to hit some big 3s down the stretch that changed the complexion of the game."

But that did not stop James from trying to bring Boston back from the arc. The point guard went 3 for 5 from the 3-point line in the fourth. All three times he brought Boston within 1 point. With 27.2 seconds remaining, Eric Williams found James on the perimeter. James hit his final 3-pointer, slicing the Bucks' lead to 94-93.

"We failed to defend," said Pierce, who suffered a jammed left thumb in the third quarter, but finished the game. "The fourth quarter is when our defense should be at its best. There were too many little breakdowns there in the fourth quarter at crucial moments . . . We can't have that. We can't have mental lapses. We need key stops and we just didn't get them tonight."

At the beginning of the game, it looked like the Celtics' offense, not their defense, would cost them the game. Coming off their most productive offensive performance of the season, the Celtics had every right to expect some carryover facing the Bucks for the second straight night. But it was not until late in the second quarter that Boston rediscovered the scoring touch and ball movement that were absent for most of the first half. The Celtics closed the second quarter with a 26-4 run and entered the break ahead by 7.

Just as the Celtics found their offense, the Bucks' attack struggled in the face of better defense in the second. Boston outscored Milwaukee, 33-16, in the second, as the home team shot 27.8 percent. The Bucks did not record a field goal after Erick Strickland hit a 3-pointer with 5:59 remaining.

In what started as a frustratingly slow-paced and sloppy game, Boston struggled to find its offense. When O'Brien called a timeout with 6:37 remaining in the first period, the Celtics were 1 for 7 (14.3 percent) from the floor.

The Celtics exited the first trailing, 22-12. The Celtics were only 1 point better than their worst offensive effort for a quarter this season, an 11-point output in the fourth at New Orleans Nov. 1.

"We just didn't get the job done," said Williams. "We had an opportunity to win a game, and you could blame it on a lot of things. They hit some big 3s. Give them credit. They made a run at the end. They hit a couple big shots down the stretch and they held us off. That was it. That's the summary of the game."

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