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Pierce's hot hand takes starch out of New Jersey

In the absence of the NHL, let's call this one for what it was, eh? A 4-pointer.

That's the convenient spin du jour anyway, which, roughly translated, means, "How can we impress upon the fellows that a game in the first week of February against an opponent seven games under .500 is, um, critical?"

Hey, in the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot Atlantic, division games loom large, especially when 3 1/2 games separate the five teams. And, as Doc Rivers noted after last night's 110-89 trouncing of the New Jersey Nets, "In our division, if you win one, you get first place back. We have first place back."

Sound the trumpets. The 22-24 Celtics are, indeed, atop the division by virtue of last night's rout of the Nets, who looked about four steps slow all night. Thanks to the Sixers' home loss to Houston, the Celtics lead what Paul Pierce called "the worst [division] in NBA history" by a half-game over Philadelphia. The Nets, whose four-game winning streak prior to last night's no-show was the longest of the season by any Atlantic team, dropped three games back.

The Celtics put this one in the W column by forcing the issue from the get-go. They ran the fatigued guests, who had played the night before, and they pounded them inside from beginning to end. Summed up Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, "We were outplayed."

Pierce had arguably his best game in a long, long time with 28 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, all crammed into 30 minutes over the first three quarters. He was 9 of 15 from the field, took nary a trey, and added four steals to complete his tour de force.

"He should have been doing these things years ago," said Gary Payton of Pierce. "That would make him one of the most dominant players in the league." Payton said he noticed that Pierce was "playing happy again . . . He needs to be like that. This year, he's showing me he can be an all-around player and excel [in] his career."

Asked if it was his best performance of the season, Pierce said, "probably so. I can't think of any better. And it was a game that we needed."

A must-win game in February? Not really, of course. There is no such thing. (What if you lose?) But Rivers stressed the importance of beating a tepid division rival in his pregame chat to the lads. He also reminded them that the Nets were coming off a tough game the night before and stressed the need to run and attack.

How does 20-0 in points in the paint sound? That was the astonishing margin after the first quarter, which saw the Celtics leading by 6 and the closest basket made by a Net coming from 10 feet. That would prove to be the story line of the night, which saw the Celtics with a 52-16 advantage in points in the paint and -- stop the presses -- a 42-35 advantage on the glass. Raef LaFrentz chipped in with 21 points as the Celtics shot 54 percent and had a 33-24 advantage in free throw attempts.

"I don't think they had a dunk," Rivers said, no small achievement given Vince Carter's presence. "We made them a perimeter-shooting team. And I thought they looked a little tired. That was good for us. We'll take it."

Jason Kidd gave the Celtics a momentary scare in the third quarter when he came out making threes from everywhere. He ended with seven for the game, in nine attempts, but Rivers even saw a positive to that.

"Even when he's making threes, it's not awful," the coach said. "It means the other guys aren't touching the ball."

Kidd finished with only four assists, well below his 7.2 average and his fewest in a game since Jan. 5. He's still five assists shy of passing Bob Cousy for 12th place on the all-time NBA assists list. He did finish with 25 points. Carter added 22.

After Kidd's early 3-point binge in the third, which cut a 16-point halftime deficit to 13, the Celtics went to work. LaFrentz and Pierce combined for 20 points in a 24-8 run that blew the lead out to 87-58 with 1:35 left in the third. Pierce had a signature quarter -- 14 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists -- and he picked up his triple-double when he hauled in his 10th rebound off a Jabari Smith miss with 1:49 left in the quarter.

It was the second triple-double of the season for Pierce; he also had one against the Hornets. It's the fourth of his career and fifth overall if you include the playoffs. He joins Kobe Bryant and Chris Webber as the only players this season who've had triple-doubles after three quarters.

Pierce never even worried about coming back into the game in the fourth, although Rivers told his starters to stay warm just in case. (You have noticed how the Celtics handle fourth-quarter leads?) But Kidd and Carter were also spectators at this point, as were all the starters on both teams, the result already a foregone conclusion.

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