SEATTLE -- Fundamental defensive breakdowns doomed the Celtics down the stretch last night. It was the kind of stuff that can frustrate a coach. And it did. Seattle exploited defensive lapses and dominated the battle of the boards on the way to a 118-111 victory at KeyArena.
Boston saw its first winning streak of the season end and its second major road trip start in a less-than-encouraging way. In his postgame press conference, Doc Rivers sounded like a man whose patience had been tested one too many times.
''I told our guys that I'm not going to take being young as an excuse," said Rivers. ''That's the problem we have with youth is the [lack of] urgency. They say, 'I messed that one up. I'm learning.' No, no. That's unacceptable. We had mistakes down the stretch that we just can't make. I don't care what age you are . . . It's inexcusable with how long we've been playing and working on stuff. Unfortunately, it was a lot of the young guys who did it. We just broke down. We gave them a couple 3-point plays where we were doing the wrong things, things that we talked about [yesterday] morning we would do if we went small [we didn't do]. That was disappointing."
Boston went small and battled back from an 11-point deficit, taking a 1 point advantage (97-96) when Ricky Davis hit a 3-pointer with 7:57 remaining. It was the last time the Celtics would go ahead after leading much of first half. With a 3-point play by Rashard Lewis, Seattle quickly regained the lead. Then, the Sonics broke a 105-105 tie with a 6-0 run. Fittingly, the spurt started with a 3-point play by Ronald Murray (season-high 29 points) and ended with Nick Collison (16 points, 10 rebounds) grabbing an offensive rebound for a layup. A pair of 3-pointers by Delonte West and a free throw miss by Seattle reserve Damien Wilkins brought Boston back within 1 point (112-111) with 1:44 left. But the second 3-pointer by West was the last gasp for the Celtics as the Sonics closed the game with another 6-0 spurt courtesy of free throws and a 19-footer from Collison. Down the stretch there were misses from Pierce (5-footer, 3-pointer), West (3-pointer), and Banks (running layup). Rivers acknowledged the Celtics went away from Pierce in the closing minutes a little more than he would have liked.
When Rivers and Danny Ainge talk about Pierce leading by example, they can point to last night as a prime example. The captain, who tied his season high with 43 points, looked and played like a man who would accept nothing less than a victory, even if he had to carry the rest of the Celtics. Late in the fourth quarter, with the swarming Sonics determined not to let Pierce win it, he passed out of quadruple teams and kept the ball moving. West, for one, nailed a pair of open shots near the end of the game. But ultimately, it was not enough.
''They pushed us and we didn't push back," said Pierce. ''It comes down to a toughness issue. It has to come from all five guys on the court. When you let a team shoot  free throws and get 20 offensive rebounds. Well, we should have lost by 20 points."
In the third quarter, it seemed like that might happen. Seattle outscored Boston, 40-28, in the third, taking the lead on a pair of free throws by former Celtic Vitaly Potapenko with 6:17 remaining in the quarter. The foul shots came in the middle of a 20-2 run that propelled the Sonics to an 11-point lead.
By their admission, the Celtics were outhustled and outworked when they played the Sonics in mid-November. The result was a 113-100 Boston loss at the TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics arrived in Seattle for the start of a five-game road trip determined to compete harder at KeyArena. . That resolve was evident as the Celtics took a 55-50 halftime lead, but trouble started to surface in the second.
''They stuck around and outsmarted us," said Davis (20 points). ''They out-toughed us."