The Celtics' pregame ceremony last night consisted of bear hugs and an NBA championship ring presentation for the Hornets' James Posey. Once the action started, though, the contact took on a less affectionate tone. Posey was floored by a Glen Davis pick, and the final seconds were marked by Hornet Chris Paul extricating himself from a Kendrick Perkins headlock.
It was a contest of collisions and crashes, the Celtics taking a 94-82 victory, their 14th in succession.
The Celtics (22-2) overcame "foul trouble and frustration," according to coach Doc Rivers. They also compensated for poor foul shooting (22 of 35), off nights for Ray Allen (2 of 8 shooting, 9 points) and Rajon Rondo (10 points, 2 assists), and another early-morning arrival for the second of back-to-back games.
Paul Pierce (28 points, 8 of 11 from the free throw line) essentially provided the clinching points with a free throw with 6:31 remaining, but until the Celtics put the clamps on Paul in the final minutes, the outcome remained in doubt.
"[Pierce] creates problems when he puts his head down and tries to get to the basket," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "We just didn't do a good job of reacting when he was in [isolation] situations. We were so scared of Ray Allen and their shooters that we were allowing [Pierce] to get to the basket instead of taking away that paint and forcing him to kick the ball to those shooters."
The Celtics have had some breathers during this winning streak - the fourth best in franchise history and longest since the 1985-86 team won 14 in a row - which include a 122-88 wipeout of Washington Thursday.
"That's the toughest thing to do in the league," Pierce said. "Coming from Washington, getting in late, going to bed at 3:30 or 4 o'clock, waking up, and playing a game against one of the best MVP candidates - Chris Paul and David West. This team is mentally tough. We've shown it, we've proved it, we don't make excuses. The good thing about is we just try to find ways to win."
The Celtics, who host Utah Monday, clamped down defensively early, holding the Hornets to a Posey 3-pointer (with 0:01 on the shot clock) over a 5:20 span covering the first two quarters.
But New Orleans responded to Paul's choreographing with an 11-2 rally in just under three minutes to take a 3-point lead. Kevin Garnett was the only Celtic to score in a span of just more than six minutes during the second and third quarters, his 18-footer cutting the Celtics' deficit to 40-39 with 32 seconds remaining in the first half.
"[The Hornets] are definitely a contender, so it's not a thing where we're going to expect to go out and blow teams out every night," Pierce said. "They're well-coached, they understand the game, and with [Posey] over there, they understand what we do over here.
Garnett (19 points, 10 rebounds) and Perkins (9 points, 13 rebounds, 3 blocks) got things started in the second half, igniting a 17-4 Celtics run capped by a Pierce foul shot for a 56-46 edge with 6:10 remaining in the third. Paul pulled the Hornets within 69-64 with two free throws with eight seconds left in the quarter. And that would be as close as New Orleans would get.
"It was a struggle," Rivers said. "It was not a pretty game aesthetically. A lot of frustration in the first half, but I just thought we mentally grinded it out. It was a game of spurts and we had the longer spurts in the second half.
"[Last night] was one of those games you're really happy with, because you didn't play well, you were sloppy, you were turning the ball over. Foul trouble, frustration. We had to go with different lineups because Rondo wasn't Rondo and Eddie [House] had to step in."
Paul (20 points, 14 assists) outdueled Rondo, but the Hornets could not compensate for the loss of Tyson Chandler (neck strain). And Paul could not overcome the Celtics tag-teaming him at point guard and the pick-your-poison choice of defenders Ray Allen or Pierce.
Paul ignited the Hornets late, hitting two foul shots, finding West for a dunk, and hitting a driving layup for a 3-point play in a 59-second span that cut the deficit to 89-82 with 2:37 left. The Celtics then missed twice on the same possession, but Rondo drew Posey's fifth foul off the rebound and converted two foul shots.
Garnett then dunked off a Ray Allen lob to give the Celtics a 93-82 lead with 1:43 left, and Perkins drew a bizarre offensive foul on Paul, the call made by lead official Joe Crawford with Paul in a Perkins headlock.