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A buzz followed by sting

Inconsistent Celtics can't ward off Hornets

It's over. The month. The year. The one-game winning streak.

But, unfortunately for the Celtics, the end of December and the arrival of 2004 do not bring more practice time in which to integrate the latest newcomers from Cleveland. So, Jim O'Brien and the fellows continue to plod along at their forward-backward-forward pace, the latest rear step coming yesterday afternoon in a 96-94 loss to the New Orleans Hornets at the FleetCenter.

That's how it's been ever since Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on the Ricky Davis/Chris Mihm deal Dec. 15. The Celtics had a five-game winning streak at the time. Since then, they have alternated losses and wins, which is both good (no losing streaks) and bad (no winning streaks). There have been highs (wins over Dallas and Golden State) and lows (losses to Atlanta and Utah) and, mostly, numbing mediocrity.

Yesterday was the team's ninth game since the deal and reaffirmed a basic NBA article of faith: You simply cannot just mix and match on the fly and expect any degree of cohesion, let alone chemistry. Especially when what you had had just begun to click. On a day when Paul Pierce had another Antoine Walker Tribute Outing (4 of 16 from the field, 4 of 8 from the line) to match his season low of 14 points, there was no one, really, who stepped up and took over. That is, no one on the Celtics. Baron Davis (29 points on a Walkeresque 10 of 25) did take over for the visitors, which is why they won.

The Celtics? Sorry you asked. Ricky Davis joined Pierce in the brutal shooting lineup, going 3 of 12. And one of the baskets was a forced trey with 2.8 seconds left that cut the deficit to the final margin. Walter McCarty, seeing more and more minutes (at the expense of Vin Baker, who logged only 22 minutes, all in the first three quarters), went 3 for 10, including 0 for 5 in the fourth quarter. If Jiri Welsch (6 of 8, team-high 17 points) had been the one shooting more, it might have been a different outcome.

"Certainly, the objective is to string some wins together," O'Brien said. "What has hurt us since the trade is that we really haven't had any practice time."

Mark Blount, who had 14 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks, agreed, adding, "We need more time on the practice floor so the new guys get to know us and we get to know them. It's going to take time."

And time is something they don't have. The Celtics have played 33 games, as many as anyone in the conference (Indiana, Atlanta, and New York also have played 33.) There isn't a lot of time for practice, which means that acclimating Davis, Mihm and, let's not forget, Yogi Stewart, will take a while.

And while that happens, there are going to be more than a few bumps in the road. Like yesterday.

The Celtics held the Hornets to 41.8 percent shooting. They stayed with them on the glass. They led entering the fourth quarter, but Baron Davis (11 points in the quarter) and David Wesley (7 of his 22 in the quarter) proved to be too much. The Hornets kept it closer than it needed to be by bricking 7 of 16 free throws in the period and 12 of 32 in the game. It took George Lynch's free-safetyish interception of an intended alley-oop pass at the buzzer to preserve the win.

The Celtics looked to be off and running early. They had 19 points before the midway point of the first quarter -- and 17 points over the final 18 minutes of the half, which included a ghoulish second quarter (13 points on 3-of-15 shooting). But the Hornets weren't much better and the teams ended up a point apart (70-69, Boston) following a much more entertaining third quarter.

Boston's last lead came on a Mihm hoop (74-73 with 10:18 left). Each team came up empty on a possession and then Baron Davis nailed a trey with 9:10 to play, making it 76-73.

New Orleans led, 90-82, with 2:05 left after Davis nailed another jumper. But the Celtics gamely fought back and after a Pierce trey and two Welsch free throws, the deficit was narrowed to 91-89 with 24.9 seconds left. The ever-cool Wesley then was fouled and made both foul shots (93-89), and Lynch made one of two (94-89) after Mike James (15 points) missed a trey. That pretty much settled things.

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