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CELTICS 96, NETS 88

Celtics fumble, then recover

They allow Nets to kick one away

Paul Pierce's face reflected the Celtics' run at the end of the game, not his miserable 1-for-16 shooting at the start. Paul Pierce's face reflected the Celtics' run at the end of the game, not his miserable 1-for-16 shooting at the start. (BILL KOSTROUN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Maybe this one will come back to haunt the Celtics on the day the ping-pong balls fall, but in the here and now, yesterday's 96-88 overtime victory over the Nets had an unmistakable feel-good quality about it.

How could it not? These guys have been staging late-game rallies all season, only to find themselves a point short or a second late. You might say they were due one of these.

Parents who shielded the children from the hideous display for the first 36 minutes could use the final 12 minutes to remind their kids that a game is never over, that you never give up, and sometimes good things happen.

The Celtics trailed by 9 points with 84 seconds left. The Nets led by 7 and had the ball with 53 seconds left. The Celtics trailed by 5 with 19.2 seconds left, and still found a way to win. A 6-1 burst at the end sent an otherwise forgettable game into overtime and, from there, the Celtics romped over the deflated hosts.

It was the Celtics' third straight win and they concluded their season series with New Jersey at 2-2, with each team taking both games on the other guys' floor.

"We never hung our heads," said Paul Pierce, who had good reason to hang his after missing 15 of his first 16 shots.

Pierce kept firing -- "I could miss a million shots and I still think the next one is going in" -- and ended up draining a big 3-pointer with 11.8 seconds to cut a 5-point deficit to 82-80. He finished with 17 points on, ahem, 8-of-28 shooting.

The Celtics then quickly fouled Eddie House, a 93 percent free throw shooter, who had missed only 2 of 29 free throws all season. Of course, House complied and missed one of two. The Celtics then hurried the ball up the floor. Rajon Rondo had it. The Nets were supposed to foul him. As Jason Kidd lamented, "Everyone knew we had to foul. The foul didn't happen." (Kidd, by the way, was merely mortal, with 4 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds. He was 1 of 7 from the field.)

Rondo alertly found a wide-open Delonte West, who buried the tying 3-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining. No one was near West as he measured the shot.

"Oh, yeah," West said, when asked if he was surprised. "I think we confused them a little bit. Rajon showed great composure in making the right play. As a shooter, I've got to finish. I did."

The supposedly savvy, veteran Nets, the ones with the All-Stars, still had a timeout left. There was plenty of time left. Their coach, Lawrence Frank, frantically tried to get one called. Everyone else was underwater. House took the ball up the floor and launched a no-hoper from halfcourt. No timeout. No late foul. Which is the young, impressionable team here?

"We got what we deserved," Frank said. "It's very disappointing."

He's right. His team lost to a team that in one pathetic stretch went 1 of 27 from the field over a span of 14 minutes 47 seconds. He lost to a team whose leading scorer at the time, 15 minutes into the game, was 0 of 5 from the field. He lost to a team that had missed all 13 of its 3-point attempts, then connected on the aforementioned two in a span of 7.7 seconds. He lost to a team that made exactly two baskets of more than 10 feet until midway through the third quarter.

How did the Celtics do it? Al Jefferson (career-best 32 points, 18 rebounds) kept them in the game until someone could make an outside shot. The Nets kept the Celtics in the game with turnovers (23) and by allowing second shots. The Celtics had taken 38 more shots than the Nets at the end of regulation; they ended up taking 33 more. The Nets also helped by missing 12 free throws. (Vince Carter, who had 25 points, missed five .)

The Celtics waited two minutes into the overtime before taking control. Trailing, 86-83, they closed with a 13-2 run over the final 2:56. Pierce, West, and Jefferson each had 4 points, and those who remained to the bitter end lustily booed the Nets as the final seconds ticked away. For a change, the Celtics could easily embrace that reaction.

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