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No fun with the Suns

Celtics add to their list of second-half meltdowns

Paul Pierce was conspicuously absent from the funereal scene in the Celtics' locker room following last night's game. He made an unusually quick exit from the FleetCenter after the Celtics squandered a 29-point, third-quarter lead and fell to the Phoenix Suns, 110-106. To be fair, not many of his teammates cared to linger and offer insufficient explanations for what transpired.

Undoubtedly, they have tired of talking about defeats, especially those that result from all-too-familiar second-half collapses. Maybe Pierce (24 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 turnovers) was afraid of what he might say, given his propensity to vent his frustrations publicly after tough losses.

But to categorize what happened last night as just another tough loss would be a gross understatement. It was by far the 7-12 Celtics' worst loss. It was the most disappointing and the most demoralizing. Vin Baker pronounced himself ``reeling'' over what took place in the second half. A team desperate for a win simply does not turn a blowout into a possession game down the stretch.

``I'm still reeling from everything that's happened in the last two quarters,'' said Baker (22 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists). ``There's no explanation that I have. Being up whatever we were up makes this the toughest loss in a long time. We've got to get out of this funk some way ... You look at a 29-point lead and you say, `They can't come back.' Then, they're down 7 and it's a ballgame. They kept the pressure on and they didn't change up their style of play because they were back in the game. And we didn't adjust.''

Boston opened the third quarter with Baker finding Mike James for a 3-pointer that pushed the home team's lead to 65-36. That was arguably the lone second-half highlight for the Celtics. The Suns (8-10) applied defensive pressure and proceeded to rattle off a 19-4 run capped by a 21-footer from Stephon Marbury. After being held to 7 points in the first half, the Suns' leading scorer made amends in the second half and finished with a season-high 34. Marbury said he sensed the Celtics were too comfortable with their 29-point advantage. Closing the third with a 9-3 spurt, Phoenix finished the quarter trailing just 79-72.

While the Suns shot 50 percent, the Celtics went 7 for 23 (30.4 percent) in the third. The Celtics were outscored, 36-17. They failed to get to the foul line consistently, making just three trips compared with 12 for the Suns. They committed six turnovers. The numbers would only get worse in the fourth as the Suns refused to relinquish momentum. Phoenix improved its shooting to 63 percent (12 for 19) and outrebounded Boston, 12-6.

Casey Jacobsen capped a 15-3 run with a 3-pointer, giving the Suns a 93-88 lead with 5 minutes 25 seconds remaining. But with 3-pointers from James and Pierce, Boston regained the lead, 94-93, with 4:05 to go. The game briefly went back and forth until Marbury went to work from the arc. The Suns took the lead for good on the first of two consecutive Marbury 3-pointers. A 16-footer by Anfernee Hardaway with 55 seconds left gave Phoenix its largest lead, 105-99.

There were glimmers of hope when Pierce hit a 3-pointer with 16.2 seconds remaining to bring Boston within 106-104, and a pair of James free throws narrowed the Phoenix lead to 107-106 with 10.8 seconds left. But the Suns prevailed in the parade to the foul line in the closing seconds.

``Usually, games like this only happen when you're at home, rarely on the road,'' said Phoenix coach Frank Johnson, whose team completed the biggest comeback in franchise history. ``We just stayed with what we were doing, which was trapping and making them take quick shots. We got turnovers that created some momentum for us and we made some shots when we needed to, some timely shots.''

Boston opened the contest with a 10-2 run that started with a pair of 20-footers from Pierce. A 10-0 run at the end of the first pushed Boston ahead, 30-15, with 40 seconds left in the quarter. Smart passing helped the Celtics shoot 50 percent from the floor in the opening half, while they held the Suns to 33 percent from the floor. The home team finished the first half with 15 assists. A 17-6 run midway through the second quarter led to a 24-point (55-31) advantage. The Celtics were helped by the fact that the Suns recorded more turnovers (9) than field goals (7) in the quarter.

Boston led, 62-34, after Jiri Welsch fed James for a reverse layup with 6.8 seconds left in the quarter. A 13-footer by Marbury with less than a second left set the halftime score at 62-36.

The 62 first-half points marked a Celtics season high for points in a half. But the Celtics' impressive first-half performance was a distant memory by the time the final horn sounded. Now, the Celtics are saddled with a four-game losing streak and have dropped eight of 10. Boston heads to Denver this morning, looking for a win they would like to talk about.

``Certainly, we don't want to get into a situation where we stop believing in our ability to be a good basketball team,'' said coach Jim O'Brien. ``I think this team has a great deal of resilience and I expect them to show that.''

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