Coach Doc Rivers offered his second postgame mea culpa of the season last night, taking the blame for the Celtics' poor defense. It was probably the right thing to do, even though the players should bear equal responsibility for what happened at the TD Banknorth Garden. They came out flat and executed only on offense. They were outhustled by the road-weary Sonics. They were confused and out of synch. They looked nothing like the team that stayed competitive through three quarters with defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit 24 hours earlier.
With little defense to worry about, Ray Allen emerged from his recent shooting woes and scored 32 points, clearing the way for a Sonics victory. Despite allowing Boston to shoot 52 percent, Seattle enjoyed an 113-100 win. The Sonics took advantage of turnovers, capitalized on second chances, and stayed aggressive on the glass, especially in the first half when they built a 18-point lead that proved too much for the Celtics to overcome.
''I have to do a better job as a coach," said Rivers. ''We shot the ball 52 percent and 55 percent [against Detroit Tuesday] and we have two losses. That's embarrassing to me. If you shoot the ball that well from the field, you should win games. They got every offensive rebound in the first half . . . They got every loose ball. They made every effort play and usually you win games when you do that and lose games when you don't . . . I guess I have to find a way to get us to commit to better defense."
Once Seattle got past the shock of falling behind, 7-0, they scored on seemingly every trip down the floor. When Allen poured in 13 points during the first quarter, it was a troubling sign. Perhaps toughened by its early schedule and determined not to make a long flight home even longer, Seattle tied the game, 17-17, with 5:44 left in the first. The Sonics took the lead for the first time, 21-20, and for good on a Nick Collison tip-in with 4:06 left in the first. The opening quarter ended with Seattle ahead, 31-28.
The Sonics made their biggest move in the second, easily stretching their lead to double digits, and to 20 near the end of the quarter. Mateen Cleaves sparked an 8-0 run early in the period with a pair of midrange jumpers. To finish the spurt, Cleaves found Rashard Lewis (22 points) for an alley-oop layup that pushed Seattle ahead, 41-30, with 9:20 to go in the second. A 12-1 run late in the second ended with a 3-pointer from Lewis, and the Sonics ahead, 61-41, with 1:40 left in the quarter.
The halftime box score gave good reason for a double-take. The Celtics trailed, 63-45, despite shooting 58 percent (21 for 36). The Celtics were outrebounded, 21-15, allowed 10 second-chance points, and committed 10 turnovers for 12 points.
''When I look at our statistics over the last couple games, the way we're shooting the ball, the way we're passing the ball, I think we're playing good enough offense," said Paul Pierce (22 points). ''We have to get it together defensively. Seattle is a great offensive team. It was like we'd come down, score, and they'd come down, score. There's no resistance. It's not just one person. It's team defense. Guys have got to pick up the next guy. That's why they call it a team sport. You can't go around the room and point your finger at anybody."
According to Pierce, the poor defense results from a lack of trust and effort. Given how the Sonics beat the Celtics off the dribble, Rivers may change his defensive scheme or at least adjust it to avoid the kind of breakdown that occurred last night. Whether Pierce is right or Rivers is right or it is a combination of the two, it was not something the Celtics could solve in the second half.
The Sonics opened the third quarter by extending their lead to a game-high 24 points when Collison (19 points) nailed a 15-footer on the break. The Celtics continued to shoot a solid percentage from the floor, but so did the Sonics. As a result, Boston found it difficult to gain ground throughout the third. Not even Ricky Davis finding his rhythm could pull the Celtics closer, though he scored 14 of his team-high 21 points in the third. The Celtics matched the Sonics rebound for rebound in the quarter, but again, it was not enough to gain ground.
Boston entered the fourth quarter trailing by 17 points (92-75). Any hopes of a comeback seemed far-fetched. The current edition of the Celtics is not exactly known for its late-game execution. In fact, it's quite the opposite, though Boston did close within 10 points near the end of the game.
''Guys just need to get on the same page with each other," said Davis, who led Boston with nine assists. ''We've got to overcome whatever it is and move forward."