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Celtics get one for the road

Trip ends with a stunning win

HOUSTON -- Paul Pierce nailed the shot that mattered most in a game in which the teams combined to shoot 33 percent (52 for 157). With less than a minute remaining, the Celtics worked the ball around the perimeter, desperately trying to find Pierce.

He received the ball a couple times early in the possession, but not in the best position. The shot clock dwindled to single digits and the ball again swung around to Pierce. This time, he had to shoot.

Pierce knocked down a turnaround 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock and 25.9 seconds remaining in the game. He turned a 2-point lead into a 5-point lead, and the Rockets never recovered.

With Pierce (28 points) again asserting himself as a clutch performer and Sebastian Telfair pushing the offense, the Celtics pulled out a 77-72 victory over the Rockets last night, snapping a four-game losing streak and a 12-game road skid.

The Celtics finished their second five-game tour through the Western Conference with a 1-4 record.

Shaking off an abysmal start offensively and showing the kind of resiliency that would make the best teams envious, the Celtics took the lead for the first time with less than 90 seconds remaining in the game.

"Every time we play a game like this, it's important for the young guys to understand you can win in different ways," said coach Doc Rivers. "I was most proud that we won defensively. We got stops when we needed stops. We had deflections. We got our hands on the ball. We were scrambling. That's how you've got to play, especially with who we are right now."

After trailing by as many as 13 points (62-49) in the fourth, the Celtics rallied with an 8-0 run. They were within 4 when Ryan Gomes knocked down a 17-footer with 3:29 remaining. Although Telfair missed a fast-break layup on the next trip down the floor, Al Jefferson was in the right spot to get the rebound and score a layup.

When Pierce tied the game, 68-68, on a 17-foot turnaround jumper with 2:22 left, the Celtics were clearly energized by the turn of events while Houston looked disoriented, missing shots and committing turnovers.

Delonte West gave Boston its first lead, 70-68, when he converted a fast-break layup with 1:23 remaining. The Celtics won a jump ball, giving them a chance to extend the lead. Coming out of a timeout, Pierce made his dramatic 3-pointer and Boston was ahead, 73-68.

The Celtics were 3 for 16 from 3-point range. The Rockets were 1 for 22.

"I thought they got stronger in the fourth quarter and we got weaker," said Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy. "Both mentally and physically. We got beat in transition, got beat on the boards."

Just when it seemed the Celtics could go no lower, they played their worst opening half of the season, shooting 23 percent against a Rockets squad playing the second of back-to-back games, and playing without Tracy McGrady (flu-like symptoms).

The Celtics saved some face by closing the second quarter with a 10-2 run and entering halftime behind just 35-29. But the run did not erase the memories of all that came earlier.

Boston's offensive struggles were shocking, even if Houston ranks first in the league in defensive field goal percentage (42 percent) and second in points allowed (90.8). Those numbers don't explain why it took the Celtics more than four minutes to score in the first quarter and almost five minutes to score in the second quarter.

The Rockets started the game with a 7-0 run, but their first-half shooting percentage (27 percent) was barely better than the visitors'. It was not until Jefferson went aggressively to the rim for a dunk that the Celtics got on the scoreboard, with 7:41 remaining in the first.

The Celtics' second drought allowed the Rockets to piece together an 11-5 run and take a 33-19 lead with 6:10 remaining in the half, but Boston had the benefit of finishing strongly in the second and fourth quarters.