Lakers 90, Celtics 89

All fouled up

Late call on Pierce hurts as Celtics fall to Lakers

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / February 1, 2010

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With a chance to not just seal a win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the current overlords of the NBA, but also to stop a slide that’s lasted more than a month and to salvage a three-game stretch in which they had come up short against the league’s elite, the Celtics put the ball in the hands of one of their closers.

Shortly thereafter, the referees took it out.

With the Celtics ahead, 89-88, and less than a minute left in yesterday’s game, Paul Pierce dribbled at the right elbow with Ron Artest, the Lakers’ hired muscle, guarding him.

Pierce made his move, dribbling to his right to get Artest going. Then, with his off hand, Pierce made sure. He gave Artest a push to make room for his shot. The shove knocked Artest back, and to make sure it didn’t go unnoticed, Artest stumbled all the way to the baseline, eventually landing in the crowd.

The fact that Pierce knocked down the shot made no difference. He was whistled for an offensive foul, taking the ball out of the Celtics’ hands and putting it in Kobe Bryant’s with 27.5 seconds left, precisely when you don’t want him to be anywhere near it. Bryant hit a go-ahead fallaway jumper with 7.3 seconds left and LA held on to win, 90-89.

It was hard not to look at the call against Pierce as a huge factor.

“I thought I made a good move,’’ Pierce said. “I got to my sweet spot. I guess the ref saw it differently and he made a call. That’s part of the game. That’s why you’ve got referees. I thought I made a great move, though.’’

The pushoff was as clear as it is common practice in the NBA. “I just think at that point it’s got to be unbelievable,’’ Boston coach Doc Rivers said.

Said Ray Allen, who missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer and whose top priority was to keep Bryant from going off, “He puts his arm out. That’s part of the game. It’s like even the last play with Paul. I don’t think Paul did anything different from what Kobe had been doing all [day].’’

Bryant had just 17 points at that point and had missed 12 of 19 shots. None of those numbers were relevant. Having lost seven of 13 games this month coming in, the Celtics had the wounds. Bryant brought the salt.

“I didn’t say give me one more chance,’’ Bryant said. “I said give me the damn ball. I never really give [Lakers coach Phil Jackson] much of a choice.’’

Rivers had considered putting Tony Allen on the floor for the final LA possession, but after going back and forth the Celtics stuck with Ray Allen, who had 14 years worth of wars with one of the league’s cockiest finishers.

“I just think the last play you’d rather have a star guarding a star,’’ Rivers said.

Moments earlier, as Bryant knocked down a pair of free throws that cut what was once an 11-point Boston lead to a 1-point lead, one fan in the crowd of 18,624 shouted, “M-V-P!’’ It turned out he was the smartest man in the room.

With Allen draped all over him, Bryant wiggled, twisted, and pivoted, getting off a free throw line jumper that was the dagger.

“I was swarming him as much as I could,’’ said Ray Allen (7 points of 2-of-10 shooting). “I felt like I had my hand around the ball, and he just squirmed away and got the ball up in the air. He just made a tough shot. I’ve guarded him for 14 years now, and I’ve seen him make a lot of tough shots.’’

After losing to Orlando and Atlanta, this matchup with Los Angeles was a final shot at redemption in a stretch of games against the league’s top teams.

With Pierce in foul trouble early, the Celtics fell behind, 30-19, after the first quarter, when Andrew Bynum went to work on Kendrick Perkins for 12 of his 19 points.

But Rajon Rondo, whom the Lakers had sagged off of in past meetings, made Los Angeles pay for it in the second quarter, getting to the paint at will and having a hand in 28 of the Celtics’ 33 points in the quarter. He led all scorers with 21 points and had 12 assists.

The Celtics went ahead, 81-70, when Eddie House drilled a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the top of the arc. But when they had the chance run the Lakers off the floor, they chose to stroll.

“With five minute left we went into the stall mode offensively,’’ said Rivers. “We walked the ball up the floor, took forever to run stuff. That’s just not who we are.’’

The Celtics went 4 for 15 in the fourth quarter and turned the ball over five times, including one by Tony Allen that led to an easy dunk for Lamar Odom. The Lakers knocked down 10 of their 20 shots in the fourth and controlled the glass, getting a tip-dunk from Shannon Brown that made it 84-80.

Ray Allen and Tony Allen had made it hard for Bryant to breathe, much less shoot, up to that point. Then Bryant added the Celtics to a list of last-second victims that already included Milwaukee and Miami.

As much as the Celtics could look at that offensive foul on Pierce, they had to look at themselves for collapsing yet again in the fourth quarter and essentially having to trust that their defense was good enough to stop a player built for clutch situations.

“We put them in that situation,’’ Rivers said. “And so it’s tough.’’

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