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Seattle rattled

Celtics run it up on Sonics and then hang on

They came close to trumping their Friday night fiasco against Phoenix, but the Celtics' sloppy slide in the fourth quarter last night didn't seem to bother coach Jim O'Brien. At least not publicly.

The Celtics coach instead looked at the final score, looked at the offensive balance, looked at the many contributions of new glue guy Jiri Welsch, looked at the season-high 36 points from Paul Pierce, looked at the career-high 24 points from Mike James, looked at the season-high 126 points from his team, looked at a season-best third straight win, and stated the obvious.

"I thought our offense was terrific," O'Brien said after the 126-112 victory over the Sonics. "We had ball movement, 25 assists, and really did a good job of attacking them."

Uh, coach, the fourth-quarter near-meltdown, when the Sonics cut a 31-point deficit to 10 with 6:34 to play?

"I don't think it's a big deal, to tell you the truth," he said. "If they were doing that to our top seven players, I'd be concerned."

Alas, the Sonics' scrubs crushed the Celtics' scrubs, and some of the 12,507 were wondering if we'd see Phoenix Redux. But it was the starters who mattered. And in case you've been elsewhere, the Celtics' offense, the one that couldn't crack 100 points with a sledgehammer in November, has now gone Loyola Marymount on us overnight.

Last night marked the fourth straight game the team has scored 100-plus points, which is noteworthy in that the Celtics didn't hit the century mark until their 15th game. (They've played only 22.) They last scored 100-plus points in four straight games in January 2001. They've averaged 109 points in their last five games.

Last night, they shot 57.7 percent, their best shooting night since March 30, 1999, when they shot 58.6 percent against the Hornets in Charlotte. That makes three straight games and four games in five in which they have shot 50 percent or better. As a team, they're now shooting 44.6 percent, which would put them in the top five in the league.

"I think we're starting to do some nice things on offense," said Pierce, who came off the bench when the Celtics were listing and hit two, big, bleeding-stopping baskets.

O'Brien has signaled the insertion of Welsch into the starting lineup 10 games ago as the difference in the offense. The coach feels the team moves better, passes better, and, basically, plays better with Welsch on the floor. He's also one of their best defenders and he had to watch Seattle's fourth-quarter explosion (44 points) from the bench because of a mild ankle sprain.

"I'm not surprising myself with the way I'm playing," said Welsch, who had 17 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals in 25 minutes. "But it's good. I'm happy. I'm happy I'm playing well. I'm happy to help this team get on the winning track."

The Celtics had this one headed toward Blowout Central after building a 24-point lead at the half and then expanding it to 31 after three. The Sonics were flat-out awful. Sonics coach Nate McMillan said his team was "struggling" and finally feeling the effects of the loss of Ray Allen (ankle). He could have added Gary Payton, Jack Sikma, and Slick Watts as well.

The Sonics hoisted threes -- a team-record 41 of them -- and missed most of them. They exerted no defensive pressure. If the program hadn't said Luke Ridnour was wearing No. 8, you could have sworn it was Justin Timberlake leading the Seattle attack. And when Boston expanded the 24-point halftime lead to 99-68 after three, you also could have sworn that there would be no meltdown in the time remaining because the Sonics had nothing to offer.

But their subs came out smoking in the fourth on offense and pressing and trapping on defense, forcing turnovers. (It makes you wonder why McMillan didn't try that tactic earlier.) When Ronald Murray knocked down a trey with 6:34 left, the Sonics had put together a 25-4 run and trimmed the deficit to a very manageable 103-93. Another Boston turnover followed, but Antonio Daniels missed a trey. Pierce then hit back-to-back jumpers around another missed Seattle trey and then James connected on two more biggies (one of them a trey) to get the lead back to 16 with 3:30 remaining.

That seemed to satisfy all concerned.

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