The Kings figured their luck had to change sometime.
The visitors arrived in Boston with their first four-game losing streak since the 1999-2000 season, the two most recent defeats coming on questionable goaltending non-calls at the end of contests against the Mavericks and Suns. Sacramento had not lost five straight games since the pre-Chris Webber days.
But when second-leading scorer Peja Stojakovic left the game in the first quarter with a strained right hamstring and did not return, the Kings had reason to think their nightmare would continue last night at the FleetCenter.
And it almost did.
Not until Webber (14 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists) added to his triple-double totals by grabbing a clutch rebound with 15 seconds left could the Kings be confident of winning. As Sacramento put the finishing touches on its 104-100 victory, Boston had only itself to blame for letting the game slip away.
The Celtics led by as many as 12 points in the third quarter before suffering a slow collapse that culminated in poor execution and ball watching down the stretch.
"The last five, six minutes of the game, I thought we weren't for sure whether we should win the game, if you know what I mean by that statement," said coach Doc Rivers. "We didn't act like we were supposed to win the game. That bothered me. We were acting like we were in the game. They make a run and all of a sudden we stop pushing the ball up the court. We went to halfcourt.
"Everything stopped when they made the run. That can't be for us. We weren't intimidated. We just stopped playing. You start looking at the score and hoping the game ends quickly."
Boston entered the fourth quarter ahead, 81-77, but Sacramento quickly tied the game and built a 5-point advantage (88-83) when Mike Bibby nailed a 3-pointer with 9:17 left. The Celtics appeared ready to fight for the win when they tied the game on a Paul Pierce 3-pointer, then took a 96-93 lead on a 17-footer by Mark Blount with 3:28 to go. But that was when everything really began breaking down. The teams traded baskets before Bibby stepped behind the arc again.
With 43.7 seconds remaining, the Sacramento point guard nailed a 3-pointer that pushed his team ahead for good, 102-100. The Celtics promptly took a timeout, plotting a way to regain the lead. But they wasted too much time looking for a good shot, though Blount appeared to get one when he launched an 11-footer from the right baseline. But the ball bounced off the rim and then around a throng of outstretched arms grabbing for the rebound. Webber finally captured the ball and sent the Kings running to the other end.
Ricky Davis prevented a layup, but sent Maurice Evans to the line for free throws that accounted for the final margin.
"That's a tough one to swallow, knowing that this is a game I feel like we had in our hands," said Pierce (22 points). "Key moments of the game we didn't get stops. We didn't show a sense of urgency defensively down the stretch. Both offenses know we can score. But this game was all about key stops. We didn't get the key stops.
"We let them back in the game when we were up 12 points and had momentum. This was a game that was very winnable for us."
The Kings' comeback at the FleetCenter last night was not as impressive or dramatic as the one they staged on their home court in December, rallying from a 20-point deficit to win by 14. But it was enough to make the game close and Boston nervous.
After entering the break tied, 54-54, Boston looked ready to put the game away in the third, with a 14-2 run that gave the home team its largest lead. But despite the absence of Stojakovic and the temporary loss of valued reserve Darius Songaila (bruised right knee), the Kings responded with a 17-5 run that tied the game, 75-75, with 1:49 left in the third. That left the fourth up for grabs.
"We've got to get games like this if we want to be on top of the division," said Davis. "We've got to be more mentally focused. I guess it's a learning lesson. But if you don't finish games like this one, it hurts you."