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Shorthanded Celtics no match for Wolves

One quarter of a Celtics unit that had won five consecutive games entering last night's contest against the Timberwolves got shipped to Cleveland yesterday. Safe to say they took more than their collective 22.7 points per game average with them.


Last night, their nine ex-teammates put forth an effort that in no way resembled that of their previous five games, displaying poor shooting, inept defense, and scant intensity.

The contest was thoroughly billed for the halftime ceremony, in which Cedric Maxwell's No. 31 was retired, and for the FleetCenter crowd of 17,234, there was little to celebrate before and after. Minnesota led by as many as 23 points, withstood a solid Celtics' rally in the third, then cruised to a 116-95 triumph.

Perhaps none of the players sent to the Cavaliers (Tony Battie, Kedrick Brown, and Eric Williams) or their incoming replacements (Chris Mihm, Ricky Davis, and Michael Stewart) would have helped Boston against Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell, Gary Trent, and the rest of the Timberwolves. Surely they would have given the Celtics more options against a team that shot 63 percent and outrebounded their hosts, 40-27.

Garnett had 27 points and 12 rebounds and Cassell had 27 points and 9 assists as Minnesota, which led throughout, silenced Celtics rallies with inside muscle and supreme outside shooting. Trent came off the bench to tally 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed 9 rebounds.

The Celtics were led by reserve forward Walter McCarty's 17 points. Paul Pierce, battling an injured left calf, scored 15 points on 6-for-18 shooting and added 11 assists, and 9 rebounds. Mike James scored 13 points on 6-for-16 shooting. Mark Blount scored 12 points but committed two of the team's three turnovers on its first three possessions. Vin Baker had 12 points and 5 rebounds.

"That's a good basketball team, they really shot the ball well," said Celtics coach Jim O'Brien. "We didn't challenge enough shots and we did not have the flow that we had the last five games."

Then in the middle of fielding the first question from the assembled media, O'Brien said, "You know what? That's all I'm going to say tonight. That's the end of my press conference." Then the coach abruptly left the room.

His players were more forthcoming about an evening when they shot just 42 percent and scored 14 points in the third quarter after cutting the Timberwolves' 16-point first-half lead to 57-55 with 10:55 left in the third.

"It was tough for us playing with eight or nine guys," said McCarty. "We lost guys who played big minutes for us and that's going to hurt a ball team in a lot of ways. We put forth a great effort. We made some costly turnovers at the end, which hurt us."

After the Celtics cut the lead to 2, Minnesota responded with one of its best stretches as Cassell scored 4 points in an 8-0 run to go ahead, 65-55, with 8:32 to go. The Celtics silenced the run briefly with a Jiri Welsch trey but the Timberwolves reponded with a 6-2 spurt to forge ahead, 71-60.

The Celtics cut the lead to 71-64 on a couple of free throws by Mark Blount and a jumper at the top of the key by Baker but then they went the next five possessions without a point. Minnesota countered with a layup and pullup jumper by Cassell to take a 75-64 lead with 3:39 remaining. A basket by Blount with 2:45 left cut the lead to 75-66.

From there, a Celtics team that started to keep pace with the Timberwolves early in the quarter appeared spent. Minnesota outscored Boston, 12-3, the rest of the period. The Timberwolves led after three periods, 87-69.

"They're a very good basketball team," said Baker. "We pushed ourselves back into the game, got to where we needed in the third quarter, and they made some shots and it was tough to recover."

That was more telling in the fourth period. Boston came as close as 91-76 with 10:08 left on a tip-in by Blount before Minnesota went on another scoring binge. Consecutive perimeter jumpers by Garnett increased the lead to 19. With 5:50 left, Ervin Johnson scored inside to give the Timberwolves their biggest lead of the game, 101-78.

"We knew they were undermanned," said Trent. "We knew there was a lot of emotion . . . in their locker room. Battie is an active guy on the boards and they didn't have a shot blocker with Battie out of there so we knew we had to get a lot of our points in the paint and attack the rim."

Minnesota outscored the Celtics in the paint, 46-36. It was the most points Boston has given up inside since surrendering 48 points at Orlando on Nov. 26.

"We had our chances, it's just that . . . it's hard to say," said Pierce. "I don't know where our heads were. We didn't defend at all. It's like Minnesota came in the third quarter and really took it to us. It just didn't seem like the same team that won five games in a row. Maybe we were demoralized from the trade, or I don't know. We just seemed out of synch."

The team knows it must get back in synch in a hurry. Tomorrow night it faces Dallas, which has a high-powered offense that features another traded Celtic, Antoine Walker.

"It's going be some fun. I can't wait to see him. I don't know where they would be without him," said Pierce about Walker. "It's going to be exciting matching up with him."

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