This one would really, really, really have hurt had it not ended the way it did. There would have been the inevitable comparisons to the same disheartening defeat three days earlier against Sacramento. There would be six days to stew over it. There would be a sub-.500 record at the All-Star break and, well, who needed that?
Luckily for the Celtics, they managed to escape the Whatever Floats Your Boat.com Center last night with a hard-earned, 90-88 victory over what passes these days for the Memphis Grizzlies. The Celtics led by 12 in the third quarter (just like the Sacramento game) and had a 7-point lead with 5:20 left. But the Grizzlies rallied to tie the game in the closing 10 seconds, necessitating a winning jumper by Ricky Davis with 3.9 seconds left to avoid overtime and whatever other perils may have lurked.
The Celtics, who went more than six minutes without a basket in the fourth quarter, then sweated out a long miss by Mike Miller, who earlier in the game had made a couple of ICBMs from the vicinity of Stoneham, including one that tied things at 88 with 9.8 seconds left. The victory nudged Boston above the water line at 27-26 and, coupled with Philadelphia's loss to the rampaging Pistons, left the Celtics alone at the top of the league's most pathetic fivesome -- the Atlantic Division.
"I'm just happy we won," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. He might have added, "and lived to tell about it." The referees were horrible, the game lasted an eternity, and who knows how many 5-irons Rivers would have broken over the weekend had this one gone the other way. His team also committed a ghastly 22 turnovers.
"We made it hairy, but we're doing pretty well right now as far as winning games," Rivers said. "I'll take it."
We've come to expect the Celtics to have trouble with fourth-quarter leads. They turn to Heathcliff Slocumbs and Calvin Schiraldis before our eyes, having done so most recently Sunday in a 104-100 loss to the Kings. They've lost nine games this season in which they've led or been tied after three. Last night almost was No. 10.
Leading, 72-66, after three, the Celtics briefly lost the lead, then regained it with a Tony Allen-led 8-0 run. The electric, acrobatic rookie (15 points, 7 rebounds in 31 minutes) scored the final 5 points of the spurt, starting with a spectacular reverse dunk off a Gary Payton miss. He then added three free throws to give Boston an 85-78 lead with 5:20 left.
Given the way the game was going, that margin was bigger than it appeared. Memphis couldn't shoot (36.8 percent) and was without Pau Gasol and James Posey. Stromile Swift, who had been getting inside and causing some havoc, sprained his left ankle midway through the third quarter and was gone. Three of the Grizzlies' starters got in first-half foul trouble.
The Allen reverse dunk, by the way, came with 6:19 remaining. The Celtics would miss their next five shots, four by Paul Pierce (a team-high 19 points) until Davis's winner. That drought allowed Memphis to claw back in with an 8-1 run spaced over a seemingly endless three-plus minutes. The Grizzlies got 5 straight points from Jason Williams and then, after Payton made one free throw with 16.3 seconds left, Miller tied the game with a trey that was charitably listed as 30 feet.
"I'm disappointed with the loss," said Memphis coach Mike Fratello, "but I couldn't be prouder of the effort they gave. They did almost everything you could do to give yourself a chance."
The Celtics called time. Out of the break, Davis, who was 4-of-11 shooting to that point, got the ball on the left wing. He faked a drive on Miller, pulled up on a dime, elevated, and swished a 15-footer. It's the kind of shot he makes all the time during games. Usually, when the game is on the line, Pierce gets the shot. Not this time.
"It was either going to be Ricky or Paul," Rivers said.
"I had Miller guarding me, so that's an obvious mismatch," said the ever-candid Davis, who finished with 12 points. "I just wanted to go at him and make the shot. I'm always willing and wanting that shot."
At this point, Memphis was out of timeouts. Fratello had burned a slew of them in what was a lethargic first half for his troops. A long pass went out of bounds off the Celtics, giving Memphis one final chance. But Miller really didn't get a good look, and his trey as time expired was short.
The Celtics collectively exhaled and, when they all see each other again, it will be at the UCLA gym Monday, getting ready for the Lakers. By then, this one will be a distant memory, much easier to forget because of how it ended.