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ROCKETS 111, CELTICS 80

Rockets' offense takes off

Celtics defenseless in losing rematch

Paul Pierce banged up his shoulder but stayed in the game, at least until a long period of garbage time commenced. Paul Pierce banged up his shoulder but stayed in the game, at least until a long period of garbage time commenced. (JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

Human white flags were raised early and often. Michael Olowokandi. Sebastian Telfair. Leon Powe. There was no need to try to sugarcoat the obvious. The Celtics' four-game winning streak, which started 10 days ago against the Houston Rockets, came to a crashing thud last night before 17,004 at TD Banknorth Garden, when these same (sort of) Rockets vaporized the hosts, 111-80.

It was the worst defeat of the season for the Celtics', topping the 26-point pasting administered by the Lakers Feb. 23 at Staples Center. The worst home defeat until last night had been the embarrassing 101-77 loss to the Knicks Nov. 24.

This one was never close. The Rockets never led by fewer than 12 points over the final 35 minutes -- and never by fewer than 23 over the final 15 minutes 11 seconds. Houston, which had missed 21 of 22 3-pointers in losing, 77-72, to the Celtics Feb. 26, more than made up for that blip, draining 15 of 28 from international waters.

Last night's Rockets team also featured a pair of rather prominent gents who were not in uniform when the teams met at the Toyota Center. Yao Ming was playing in his second game since missing 32 with a broken bone under his right knee. He battled foul trouble, and later a dislocated finger, and played just 19 minutes, collecting 11 points. Tracy McGrady, out with the flu Feb. 26, led six Rockets in double figures with 25 points. He also had nine assists.

The Celtics got 20 points each from Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson, but both sat out most of the fourth quarter. Jefferson said he had a sore right foot but that it wasn't serious. "That's why we took him out, even though we probably would have done it, anyway," coach Doc Rivers said.

Ryan Gomes (sore foot) and Delonte West (mild concussion) were in-game casualties as well. West left the floor when it was still a 14-point game midway through the third. A little more than two minutes later, the lead was up to 23 and the rout was on. Shane Battier had three 3-pointers in a 17-4 run that effectively ended competition for the night.

The loss prevented the Celtics from sweeping Houston for the first time since the 1990-91 season.

"We played a better team, a team that was committed defensively the entire game," Rivers said. "They came prepared. They came ready. They played with an unbelievable purpose; you could see it. That's where we want to be someday, and obviously, we're not there yet."

The Rockets had lost four of five -- starting with the defeat to Boston -- and Jeff Van Gundy, their coach, noted before the game, "We got to start winning. It's imperative we play well, sooner rather than later." Well, Coach, how does 51 percent shooting sound? Or 31 assists, which matched their season high set Jan. 29 against the 76ers? Or 15 3-pointers, which matched their season high set last month against Miami? Or the 31-point victory margin, which also matched their season high, established Nov. 4 against Dallas. (Van Gundy bemoaned the number of turnovers -- 18. Honest.)

"It was a game we had to win and we came out with a great deal of energy," said McGrady. "I think this was a pivotal game for us. This is the way we need to play." Sharing the scoring load were Battier (15 points), Rafer Alston and Chuck Hayes (14 each), Juwan Howard (12), and Yao. Hayes also had 11 rebounds.

The Celtics led for the first few minutes as Pierce came out of the chute hitting his first three shots. But the first of Battier's five 3-pointers snapped the game's only tie, 6-6. Boston trailed by 8 after one, by 13 at the half, and by 25 after three. Jefferson was a beast in the first half, with 18 points and 11 rebounds, almost single-handedly keeping the Celtics in the game.

"We tired him out by letting him score so much," Van Gundy deadpanned. "It was a different strategy."

Indeed, Big Al was only 1 for 5 from the field in the second half and then was taken out for good early in the fourth. Pierce was already on the pine. Olowokandi replaced Jefferson; he had not played since a five-minute submission in Houston. Telfair, who sat out all 58 minutes of Sunday's double-overtime win over Minnesota, played the entire fourth quarter, which became the embodiment of garbage time as the visitors padded their lead, while the home fans headed for the exits.

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