When asked what happened in the locker room at halftime, Paul Pierce looked a bit confused. He could not remember any stirring, Rockne-esque speech. He has never been big on such motivational ploys. He heard only his own "verbally abusive" inner voice listing all that went wrong for the Celtics in the first half of last night's game against the Nuggets, primarily the poor defense that allowed Denver easy baskets.
He knew what needed correcting. And it was painfully obvious to anyone in the crowd of 17,763 at the FleetCenter.
So the Celtics came out after the break and quickly found a remedy for what ailed them, using a 24-6 early run and playing unrelenting defense in an eventual 104-100 victory that kept Boston mere percentage points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Momentum from the run and defense had sustained Boston through the toughest portions of a tight fourth quarter. And when Pierce escaped from the shadow of Voshon Lenard with 25.9 seconds left and nailed an 18-foot turnaround jumper for a 103-99 lead, the Celtics knew the game was in hand.
"We just wanted to pick it up in the second half," said Pierce (28 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists). "It was the little things killing us in the first half, allowing them to shoot a high percentage. We weren't helping on the weak side and they were able to get layups and dunks after dunks. Once we cleaned that up, we were able to pick up our defense. We knew what we had on offense. We knew we could move the ball and score. We just had to get stops. In the second half, we fed off our energy once we got on the run."
The Celtics (31-38), who have won eight of their last 10, allowed the Nuggets to shoot 54 percent in the first half, including almost 60 percent in the second quarter. As a result, Denver held a 56-49 advantage at halftime and led by as many as 9 points late in the second quarter. The Nuggets' shooting percentage dropped dramatically to 34 percent in the second half. The Celtics hovered around 50 percent for the game. They we particularly effective from 3-point range, shooting a season-high 63 percent from beyond the arc, including 6 for 8 in the second half.
Walter McCarty led the way from 3-point range, hitting 5 of 6 attempts from the arc. And most of the shots were timely, especially the two 3-pointers McCarty hit during Boston's third-quarter run and the one he hit with 3:25 left that made it a two-possession game, stretching the home team's lead to 101-96.
"We were just playing tough [down the stretch]," said McCarty (17). "We know that we can score on teams, a lot of weapons, a lot of power out there. I get an opportunity to shoot every night. I was just hitting them tonight. When I get the opportunity, I've just got to take advantage of it. And for some reason, I'm always open."
After taking an 82-78 lead into the fourth, the Celtics trailed by as many as 5 points (89-84) when rookie Carmelo Anthony went in for a driving finger roll with 8:57 to play. Anthony, the reigning Western Conference player of the week, impressed in his first visit to Boston with 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. But a foul by Anthony on the next Boston possession put Pierce on the line and sparked an 8-0 run. Chucky Atkins (season-high 21 points, season-high 10 assists) capped the spurt with a 3-pointer.
There were four ties before a slam dunk by Pierce pushed Boston ahead for good. A 3-pointer by McCarty gave the Celtics a 5-point advantage, but a quick 3-0 spurt (all free throws) brought Denver back within 2 (101-99). Then, it was time for Pierce to find a way around Lenard for the 18-footer that essentially sealed the game. Interim coach John Carroll called it one of the gutsiest wins of the season, especially considering he played fatigued starters Mark Blount (17 points, 15 rebounds), Atkins, and Pierce, along with frequently used reserves Ricky Davis and McCarty, together for much of the fourth.
"I challenged the guys at halftime," said Carroll. "We came in the locker room and we talked about a couple defensive schemes, of how to handle certain things they were throwing at us. But more importantly, I just challenged them and said that I didn't feel as though they were playing desperate enough. I know we got fatigued in the fourth quarter. I understand that. I went to the bench for a little bit and I just didn't like what I saw. I just made a calculated decision to go right back with the guys that were getting the job done."