The contributions of Marcus Banks did not go unnoticed last night. According to Celtics coach John Carroll, the rookie point guard played his best game as a professional, although his performance at the FleetCenter lasted only 17 minutes. But they were 17 minutes filled with 13 points, 5 assists, and a career-high 7 steals. They were also filled with just the type of energy Boston needed to emerge from a third-quarter malaise.
With Banks providing a spark at the start of the fourth and Paul Pierce supplying a clutch 18-footer and free throws at the end of the quarter, the Celtics defeated the Golden State Warriors, 111-106. The efforts of Banks and Pierce were complemented by the fact that Boston placed seven players in double figures and shot 53 percent. The Celtics also scored 26 points on the break, including 19 in the first half.
"It doesn't really matter how you win sometimes," said Carroll. "It's just the fact that you do win. We played excellent basketball throughout the first half, and our ability to pace the game and pressure and create turnovers was obviously what won the game for us in the end."
The win, coupled with a New York loss, pulled the teams into a seventh-place tie in the Eastern Conference standings at 35-41, though the Knicks hold the season-series tiebreaker. The Celtics also stretched their lead over the ninth-place Cavaliers (32-43) to 2 1/2 games, making the playoffs seem ever more likely with six games left on the schedule. Seeing out-of-town scores flash around the FleetCenter certainly helped provide extra motivation, which the Celtics needed to survive a close finish.
After Boston watched its game-high 18-point lead nearly disappear in the third quarter, Banks began the fourth with a 3-point play, igniting a 10-0 run. Banks and Pierce accounted for all of the points during the spurt that pushed the Celtics ahead, 94-82. But Golden State responded with a 15-6 run capped by a 3-pointer from Brian Cardinal (23 points, 4 for 6 from 3-point range). A little less than five minutes later, a 9-2 Golden State spurt capped by a Jason Richardson 3-pointer tied the game at 106 with 54.3 seconds remaining. The Warriors went 14 for 26 from the arc.
But after the Richardson 3-pointer Pierce hit an 18-footer to break the tie. Then, he sealed the game by hitting 3 of 4 free throws over the final 20 seconds. It was a big night for Pierce from the line as he took a career-high 23 free throws. Although the captain struggled with his foul shooting in the third, he made his free throws when they mattered most. In general, the Celtics hit their shots and stepped up on defense at crucial times.
"We got a big lead and we should have put them away," said Pierce (32 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists). "We kept our composure for the most part and that's what really excited me. We didn't lose our composure down the stretch when they came back and tied the game up, and we won the game."
Golden State staged two runs in the third that turned a 14-point halftime deficit (62-48) into a 1-point (80-79) Boston advantage with 2:12 left in the third. The first started with Mickael Pietrus's steal, which led to a 3-pointer by Richardson (25 points, 11 rebounds). Two more Golden State 3-pointers (by Richardson and Mike Dunleavy) made it a 4-point game (68-64). The second run started with yet another 3-pointer by Richardson. Then, the Warriors went to midrange jumpers and layups, outscoring the Celtics, 15-4.
"We just picked it up a little more on defense [in the second half]," said Clifford Robinson. "When you pick up your aggression on defense, your offense automatically gets more aggressive. We were able to make plays at the basket and guys made a lot of threes."
The Celtics were clearly the more aggressive group in the first half. Coming off a loss to Portland Wednesday, Boston was both hot and bothered. Hot on offense, shooting 61 percent, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. Bothered by officials Bob Delaney, Ron Olesiak, and Jason Phillips, who made more than a few calls that raised the eyebrows and ire of the Celtics. But despite every starter except Jiri Welsch picking up at least a pair or personals, Boston dominated by scoring inside and on the break.
When Walter McCarty capped an 8-0 run with a layup in the second quarter, the Celtics posted their largest lead of the half at 46-28. The ease with which the Celtics scored inside helped improve their shooting percentage and lead. Boston outscored Golden State, 30-12, in the paint before halftime. The Warriors pieced together a 10-2 run and cut their deficit to 52-42 with a little more than three minutes left in the second. But the visitors could not draw within single digits.
"I'm not complaining at all," said Banks, on squandering a large first-half lead. "It feels as good to win by 4 or 5 as it does by 20."