Marcus Banks experienced the kind of deja vu only a rookie out of college can claim. With all the fast-break baskets produced by the Celtics last night at the FleetCenter, Banks thought he was back on campus. All the up-tempo basketball seemed more UNLV than Boston to the speedy point guard. And Banks had no complaints about being back in school.
In what interim coach John Carroll called Banks's "best game" as a professional, the rookie pushed the pace and propelled the Celtics to a 94-90 win over the Wizards before fouling out with 57.3 seconds remaining. The speed of Banks combined with the athleticism of Ricky Davis proved an unstoppable pairing. The two played precisely the type of style director of basketball operations Danny Ainge envisions. Up-tempo. Athletic. Entertaining.
"I was out there free today," said Banks (12 points, 4 assists, 3 steals). "[Carroll] told me to just go out there and play, and to do the things that got me here: To keep it simple and, if I have a shot, take it. If not, get my teammates the ball and that's what I did. I've been waiting all season to get up and down like that. It felt real good. I just kind of went back to UNLV there. Hopefully, I'm going to grow as a person and as a player throughout the rest of the season and get these victories."
The Celtics took the lead, 66-65, for the first time when Davis converted a reverse layup on the break with 10 minutes 27 seconds remaining in the fourth. It was the second straight fast-break basket for Boston, the other credited to Banks on a goaltending call. Banks found Davis for a slam dunk on the next fast break, snapping a 68-68 tie and giving Boston the lead for good. But the home team would have its resolve and free throw shooting tested down the stretch.
Boston established its largest lead, 83-75, with a 9-2 run that featured more free throws than field goals. The Celtics made seven trips to the line and made good on five. Mark Blount (17 points, 7 rebounds) capped the run with 3:32 remaining, turning a missed free throw by Banks into a layup. Blount went to the line but failed to finish the 3-point play. Still, the Celtics stayed comfortably ahead until late in the fourth.
With less than two minutes to play, Washington staged an 8-2 run. When Juan Dixon nailed a 3-pointer to cap the spurt with 13.8 seconds remaining, the Wizards had pulled within 1 point (91-90). But the Wizards were forced to foul. Paul Pierce made a pair of free throws and Chucky Atkins made one of two, sealing the victory.
"It's a tremendous win for us, especially when you look at the circumstances where we're battling for the eighth spot against a team that's right on our back, about three or four games out," said Pierce (24 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists). "We're starting to gather some momentum and these are games we need because we have a tough week ahead of us coming up."
The victory extended the Celtics' winning streak to four games as they head out for a two-game trip with stops in Minnesota and New York. The path to the playoffs becomes tougher, but by pulling through in the fourth quarter, the Celtics showed they still have a considerable amount of fight left. There was a different feel in how the Celtics conducted themselves down the stretch. Even with a rookie at point guard, Boston remained relatively calm and composed as Washington closed the gap late in the fourth.
The Celtics' improved play in the final quarter was indicative of team confidence that built throughout the second half. After trailing, 49-39, at halftime, Boston found its offense late in the third. For the game, the Celtics shot 46 percent, 55 percent in the second half. Some players speculated that three days off left them a little rusty on offense. For the Wizards, it was a reversal of fortunes as they shot 39 percent, 29 percent in the second half. During the second half, Boston also clamped down on Washington's inside scoring, holding the Wizards to 6 points in the paint after allowing 30 in the first half.
By the end of the third quarter, Boston trailed, 65-60. The Wizards led by as many as 12 (62-50) with 3:30 left in the third before the Celtics closed the quarter with a 10-3 run, capped by a pair of 3-pointers by Walter McCarty (11 points, 6 rebounds). The Celtics' spurt at the end of the third, combined with a strong start to the fourth, amounted to a 24-7 run that turned a 12-point deficit into a 5-point lead.
"I think the chemistry is really starting to come together," said Pierce. "It's a crucial time of the year. It's March and it's going to be a dog race going down to the end, so these are crucial games and guys are really starting to step up their games."