When 6-foot-3-inch Baron Davis tossed an off-balance 6-11 Raef LaFrentz to the floor early in the fourth quarter last night, Paul Pierce wanted to laugh. Even though point guard Davis may be one of the most solidly built players in the NBA, the takedown had all the makings of a comedy routine. Except LaFrentz did not find it at all funny. The big man glared at the not-so-little man and said a few choice words. In a moment of team unity, the rest of the Celtics were appropriately angered, and the officials tagged Davis with a flagrant foul.
But the real payoff was not the pair of free throws a calm and collected LaFrentz tossed in seconds after the incident. It was the spark Davis provided the Celtics. While coach Doc Rivers worried Davis would take his frustrations out on the Celtics with his offense from that point on, his team redoubled its efforts. It was as if the physical play of Davis reminded Boston what was at stake. At a time in games when the Celtics' focus usually drifts, they appeared more determined than ever not to let the Warriors stage a run and make the game close again.
Properly focused for much of the fourth quarter, the Celtics stayed comfortably ahead and secured a 109-98 victory without any late-game drama, save for a righthanded alley-oop dunk by Ricky Davis at full stretch. Boston outrebounded Golden State, 49-37, and outscored its opponent in the paint, 60-30, and in second-chance points, 27-14.
''[LaFrentz going down] gets everybody going," said Ricky Davis (21 points, seven assists). ''It has everybody up on their toes and willing to take a hard foul down on the other end. I guess it ignited us a little bit."
The Celtics really got going when Pierce connected with Davis for an alley-oop dunk. Pierce lofted the pass about a foot too far to the right of the rim. But Davis had no problem corralling the ball with his right hand and dunking it in one graceful motion. The basket capped a key 6-0 run and pushed Boston ahead, 99-88, with 6 minutes 51 seconds remaining. It also erased any thoughts of a Golden State comeback and brought the crowd of 14,017 at the TD Banknorth Garden to its feet.
''I like passes like that so I can spread out a little bit," said Davis. ''I like it when they're wild like that, so I can go get 'em."
Thankfully for the Celtics, who were coming off a 32-point loss to the Bulls Saturday night, the pass was the only part of their game that was a little wild down the stretch. The Warriors, on the other hand, were well off the mark with their late shots. They hit just four field goals in the final 7:58 as playing in the second of back-to-back games appeared to catch up with them in the fourth.
In the third, it was the Warriors who caught up with the Celtics. Not surprisingly, the Celtics saw an 11-point halftime lead turn into a 1-point deficit near the end of the third. The Warriors used a 10-3 run early in the quarter to draw close. Troy Murphy (game-high 27 points and 12 rebounds) capped the spurt with a 3-pointer and 16-foot fadeaway that brought the visitors within 4 (71-67) with 7:37 remaining in the period. Later in the third, Derek Fisher capped a 5-0 spurt with a 3-pointer that gave Golden State a 77-76 lead with 2:27 remaining. Boston entered the fourth ahead, 85-80.
''We just played in spurts," said Baron Davis. ''You can't play in spurts on the road and expect to win."
The Celtics took a 62-51 lead into halftime. Although typically inconsistent through two quarters, coming back from a 5-point deficit in the first and squandering a 9-point lead in the second, Boston appeared to recognize the urgency of the game. The Celtics hustled on both ends, dived for loose balls, and fought for second-chance baskets. And they did all this without starting point guard Delonte West, who is usually one of the team's most tenacious and tough-minded players.
Starting in place of West (mild concussion), Marcus Banks led Boston at halftime, scoring 12 of his 16 points before the break. He had a stretch when he scored 10 in less than two minutes near the end of the second. It was a much-needed offensive outburst, coming just after the Celtics struggled with turnovers that allowed the Warriors to stage an 8-0 run. Aside from the turnovers, Rivers was basically pleased with the Celtics' effort, in what he considered essentially a ''must win" game.
''I don't know if it was vital [to get the win], but it was big," said Rivers. ''We needed the win because I look at the whole picture. We still have a lot of work to do, but it was nice that we just played better. We played solid basketball."
Now, can the Celtics play solid basketball for two straight games? That will be determined tomorrow against the Jazz as, once again, they try to win consecutive games for the first time this season.