CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Hey, you take them when, and where, you can get them. And that means a road win over the expansion Charlotte Bobcats at the midway point of the 2004-05 season -- a down-to-the-wire, white-knuckle win -- suits the Celtics just fine.
"We finally got the monkey off our back," Paul Pierce said after the Celtics outlasted the Bobcats, 97-92, before a sparse gathering of 11,129 at the Charlotte Coliseum. "This was a game we really needed."
You think? They had not won a road game since Dec. 18 and were coming off a hideous loss in Atlanta. Mercifully, the Bobcats appeared on the schedule and provided just enough opposition, but not too much, as the Celtics snapped their nine-game road skid. Pierce led the way with 33 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter on a Dantleyesque line of 2-10-14.
Those numbers were not by accident. A day after coach Doc Rivers lamented his team's inability to go to Pierce down the stretch, there was no mistaking where the ball went last night. Pierce got the ball almost every possession.
"That's what Doc wants. That's the way it is," said Gary Payton, who had 8 points and 6 assists.
"I'm our best player," Pierce said matter-of-factly. "I command attention. If they collapse on me, I can find a guy who can make a play. They made an effort to look for me. That's what most teams do. They go to their best player and expect him to make plays."
Pierce scored 8 straight points, 6 from the line, and that allowed the Celtics to overtake their callow hosts, who made things worse by missing 12 of 22 free throws (they're 28th in free throw shooting for a reason) and by allowing 8 second-chance points in the fourth. The Pierce run gave the Celtics an 84-82 lead with 4:58 left. A free throw by Ricky Davis (11 points) and a Mark Blount jumper (after the Bobcats couldn't rebound a missed free throw by Davis) made it 87-82 with 3:29 left.
The Bobcats, who've lost nine straight and 15 of 16, got within 3 on several occasions. The Celtics countered each time, whether it was Pierce (free throws and a big jumper in the lane) or Al Jefferson, who hit a gutsy spinner with 1:45 to play that made it 91-86.
"That bucket was huge," Rivers said. "He has a lot of confidence offensively. When he gets the ball, I'm always pretty confident he'll do something good."
Jefferson had 8 points and 6 rebounds with a very sore right hip in 20 minutes. Raef LaFrentz added 12 points.
Charlotte got a spirited game from Emeka Okafor, who had 20 points, all in the second half, to go with 12 rebounds and 5 blocks. Primoz Brezec had 18 and Kareem Rush 17. Coach Bernie Bickerstaff had said before the game that he could add five victories to the team's win total if it just made free throws. Last night might have been No. 6.
"It's kind of difficult to beat anyone shooting 45 percent from the line," Bickerstaff said. "It's a fundamental thing you do and the guys shoot them every day."
Added Brezec, "It's getting ridiculous. I think it's in our heads. It's a free throw. You go to the line, concentrate, and knock it down."
Brezec boinged three from the line. "It starts with me," he said.
This was your "something's got to give" game in that both teams went in with long losing streaks. The Bobcats did not qualify theirs via venue, as the Celtics did. Charlotte had one win since Christmas. The Celtics had one road win since Christmas. The Celtics had just lost in New Jersey and Atlanta.
"It can become a mental thing," Rivers said. "It's good to get a win. We might even be leading our division. You never know."
Not so fast, Doc. At 19-22, you're a half-game behind those rampaging (one win in a row) Sixers.
The Celtics led by 6 after one, by 4 at the break, and by a mere point, 71-70, heading into the dreaded fourth. The victory-starved Bobcats smelled blood and took their first lead since the first quarter on an Okafor hoop with 10:28 to play. Charlotte managed two more leads in the quarter, the last coming with 6:03 left when Rush swished a wide-open 3-pointer to make it 82-80.
That's when Pierce went to work. He made two free throws (82-82) with 5:41 left. A Davis steal led to two more Pierce freebies with 4:58 left (84-82). Keith Bogans misfired, and that led to Davis's free throw. Blount then hit his big jumper after Okafor rejected Jefferson. After an Okafor hoop, Pierce added two more free throws as the Celtics were able to keep their composure, which had been lacking 72 hours earlier in Atlanta.
"We were a lot more patient," Payton said. "We weren't going crazy out there, taking bad shots. A lot of times we'll rush shots, but we didn't rush shots tonight."