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Trek's start unsettling for Celtics

WASHINGTON -- As he prepared to leave a disappointed locker room, Celtics center Mark Blount offered a perfect and succinct summation of yesterday's disheartening loss to the Wizards.

"Sort of makes the week a little longer, doesn't it?" Blount said after Washington rode the ultra-hot shooting of Gilbert Arenas (32 points) and Larry Hughes (31) to a 112-102 victory yesterday before 18,406 at the MCI Center.

The defeat started the Celtics off on the wrong foot in their weeklong road trip, the outcome of which could well result in the team returning to the playoffs for the third straight year. But they'll have to play a lot better on defense than they did yesterday; you don't surrender 112 points and allow your opponent to shoot 55.6 percent and live to tell about it.

"It was our defensive performance," Blount said. "Once those guys got it going, it was hard to stop them."

The loss dropped the Celtics to 35-42, ensuring their first losing season since the 2000-01 campaign. They are now a game behind the Knicks in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and 2 1/2 games ahead of ninth-place Cleveland. Both New York and the Cavs were idle yesterday. The Celtics and Knicks have five games remaining while the Cavs have six.

"It's definitely disappointing, understanding what's at stake," said Paul Pierce, who had 17 points and 13 assists. "We had a chance to get closer to sewing up a playoff spot and let it slip away."

In the Silver Lining Dept., Marcus Banks followed his Friday tour de force with another whopper, scoring a career-high 24 points to go along with 6 steals in 27 minutes. Ricky Davis added 17 points off the pine.

The Wizards, who entered the game having lost five straight, seven of eight, and 14 of 17, crushed the Celtics on the glass (39-25) and managed to win despite 21 turnovers (which led to 27 Celtics points) and despite the absence of Jerry Stackhouse, who dressed for action but was held out, missing his 53d game of the season.

The Celtics have no one to blame but themselves for letting this one get away to a really lousy team. That said, they probably were overdue for a stinker. They have lost only six times since Feb. 25 and this was the first time they went down to a team with a losing record. The other setbacks were to the Lakers, Pacers, Mavericks, Spurs, and Trail Blazers.

And they had their chances yesterday. They simply proved incapable of stopping the Hughes/Arenas juggernaut. The two shot 19 of 36 from the field and had 19 of Washington's 30 fourth-quarter points.

The Celtics, who led by 11 with 2:20 left in the first half, had their last lead early in the fourth, when Jumaine Jones made a free throw (for his only point) to snap an 82-82 tie with 11:22 remaining. Rookie Jarvis Hayes, who came off the injured list for this matinee, then triggered an 8-0 Wizards run with a short jumper. In succession came a Mitchell Butler dunk off a Jones turnover, a Kwame Brown follow of a missed Hayes trey, and a Hughes jumper from the free throw line.

That blew the Washington lead out to 90-83. The Celtics fought back to within a point (91-90 with 6:38 left on a Banks drive) but Arenas dropped a shot-clock-beating parabola from somewhere near Annapolis and Etan Thomas added a left hook after Pierce (7 of 18) bricked a 3-pointer to make it 96-90.

"When he starts making 35-footers with the clock winding down, it's tough," Pierce said of Arenas. "I understand when a guy gets in that kind of zone. He's tough to stop. He hit big shots."

There were two more biggies still to come. After the Celtics pulled to within 98-94, Arenas (6 of 9 from international waters) drained another trey. And with the Celtics making one last charge, he dropped down another while getting fouled by Banks. The 4-point play made it 109-99 with 1:25 left, officially signaling an end to the day's competition.

"He caught me on that one," Banks said. "That was a wild play. I got up and contested his shot and he followed through. His hand hit mine, a little acting helped, so he got the foul and the bucket. That's what great players do."

And so begins a week in which the Celtics face Miami, New Orleans, and Atlanta in a four-night stretch. But first will come a couple days in southern Florida. They still are in excellent shape for the postseason. They just know it could have been even better had they taken care of business yesterday against the team with the worst record of the four they will see in this six-day stretch.

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