Celtics 94, Rockets 87

Pierce shows flair, Celtics blast off

Celtics blast off in trip’s opener

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 20, 2010

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HOUSTON — He only had 16 minutes next to his name entering the fourth quarter. Blame it on four fouls.

Paul Pierce had 11 points up until then, and with the Rockets trying to eat away at a double-digit lead and keep their season-high four-game winning streak alive, coach Doc Rivers figured it was time for Pierce to break out in the final quarter.

“He had a lot of rest,’’ Rivers said. “He was in foul trouble all game. He was the freshest guy on the floor.’’

Pierce sneaked past Trevor Ariza for a layup that made it 94-87, raising his hands triumphantly even though there were 47.2 seconds left. The shot clinched the Celtics’ third straight win, and it was the third straight game in which Pierce got into foul trouble early, although it didn’t stop him from scoring 15 of the Celtics’ final 22 points, firing arrows into every Rockets’ rally.

A game after scoring 29 points playing essentially only two quarters against the Knicks, Pierce went 9 of 14 from the floor, knocked down 2 of 3 3-point attempts and hit 6 of 8 free throws, putting together the type of performance Rivers insisted the Celtics need as they prepare for the playoffs.

“I think he’s getting there,’’ Rivers said. “I think there’s still some things he can improve and will improve. His endurance and some of his timing.’’

Pierce (26 points) and Kevin Garnett (15 points, eight rebounds) fed off each other in the fourth quarter, combining for all but 1 of the Celtics’ 22 points (a Glen Davis free throw).

“As of late, we’ve been playing aggressive basketball,’’ Garnett said. “I know the sets, I know the plays, I’ve just got to be aggressive in them.’’

When he eyed this three-game road stretch, Rivers said this was the type of trip the Celtics could either win all three or lose all three.

Option 2 is no longer on the table. The Celtics play Dallas tonight and Utah Monday, and they’ve won more games away from the Garden (23) than they have at home (21).

Last night, the Celtics won the rebound battle (43-42), kept the ball moving (25 assists) held Houston to 39.5 percent shooting, knocking down 45.7 percent of their shots and going 10 for 23 on 3-pointers.

“When you’re not missing and you’re not turning it over it’s tough for the other team to run,’’ Rivers said.

Ray Allen scored 19 points, going shot for shot in the third quarter with the player the Celtics allegedly wanted to trade him for. Allen went 3 for 3 in the quarter (all 3-pointers) and Kevin Martin went 4 for 4 with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.

“It was just kind of you play, you follow your guy,’’ Allen said. “You follow whoever’s got the hot hand. It was just one of those things.’’

The Celtics made a conscious effort to shut down the Rockets from 3-point range, holding them to 5 of 17. Aaron Brooks, who had made at least one three in 39 straight games, going 7 for 7 Wednesday against Memphis, scored just 10 points and missed his only attempt from 3-point land.

“As a team, we were just determined to get out on that 3-point shot and make them take in between shots,’’ Rivers said.

Led by Martin and Luis Scola, who scored 17 points apiece, the Rockets made their pushes. But the Celtics never budged.

Houston tied it at 52 when Ariza drilled a 25-foot trey, but the Celtics never seemed out of control.

When Shane Battier drilled a 3-pointer that made it 75-71 in the fourth quarter, Pierce drove hard to the lane, missed a layup, got the rebound, and put it back in.

The Rockets could not make a sustained run, shooting as low as 36.2 percent late in the third quarter.

Within moments of Battier’s 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, the Celtics lead was back up to double-figures, with Pierce scoring 8 points in a little more than two minutes, dealing the finishing blows.

“I thought down the stretch we were really patient,’’ Rivers said. “We took clock and we got good shots and that’s great to do down the stretch.’’

With Pierce putting up big numbers for the second straight night, Rivers said he sees positive signs, whether it’s Pierce scoring on isolation plays or hitting step-back jumpers.

“He’ll get it,’’ Rivers said. “He’s not perfect yet, but he’s getting close.’’

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