Monday, June 9, 2008

Celtics halfway to title

Paul Pierce did not need a dramatic exit, entrance, wheelchair or miracle cure Sunday to give his fans a thrill. All he needed was two free throws - the safety net the Boston Celtics surprisingly needed after a laugher turned tense at TD Banknorth Garden.
Pierce sank them both with 22.8 seconds left, and the Celtics held on for a 108-102 victory and a 2-0 lead in the NBA finals. Game 3 is Tuesday in Los Angeles.
"We knew we had to get this win and this was a big win going out West," Pierce said. "Our mindset is to get Game 3 and try to take away their confidence and win this series in L.A. We knew it was going to be tough, but nobody said it was going to be easy."
The Celtics led by 24 points with less than eight minutes left, which seemed safe enough. But the Lakers channeled their desperation into a hailstorm of three-pointers and put a momentary chill in the building. Vladimir Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant all scored from beyond th arc as the Lakers whittled the deficit to 104-100 with 1:03 left.
Bryant made two free throws with 38.4 seconds left to make it a two-point game. But Pierce drove past Bryant and into traffic, drawing a foul from Fisher to earn the free throws. He extended the lead to 106-102, and the Lakers bowed out when Vujacic's three-point shot was blocked by Pierce on the next possession.
"We got cute when we got the lead," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "We tried to make sensational plays instead of keeping it simple."
For most of the evening Bryant had a contorted expression and a multiple-choice problem. Where should he aim his anger and frustration? At the referees who disagreed with his world view? At the teammates who abandoned him for most of the night? Or at the Celtics, whose relentless defense held all of them in check?
Lamar Odom had just 10 points in 32 minutes. He committed his fifth foul late in the third quarter and never played in the fourth. The Lakers shot 49 percent but could not stop the Celtics, who shot 53 percent. Boston also enjoyed a huge advantage at the free-throw line (38 free throws to the Lakers' 10).
Los Angeles Coach Phil Jackson clearly was irritated by the officiating, although he tempered his words. He was most irked by Boston reserve Leon Powe's being awarded more free throws (13) than his entire team.
"That's ridiculous," he said. "You can't play from a deficit like that."
Asked about the general disparity in free-throw shooting, Jackson credited the Celtics for being aggressive. But, he added: "I think my players got fouled. I have no question about the fact that my players got fouled and didn't get to the line."
Pierce scored 28 points on his sprained right knee. Powe, the former Cal star, collected 21 points and a lot of ovations from an appreciative crowd. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had 17 points each, and the Celtics enjoyed a mostly stress-free evening for 3 1/2 quarters.
Bryant scored 30 points, but he battled on two fronts all night, taking on the Celtics' defense and the referees. He picked up three fouls in the first half and a technical foul in the third quarter. Still, he believed his team's furious comeback attempt wasn't all in vain.
"We played with a sense of desperation and aggression," Bryant said. "I think that's something to take home and learn from."
Any concerns about Pierce's knee and Kendrick Perkins' sprained ankle were put to rest shortly after tipoff. Perkins grabbed an offensive rebound and passed to Pierce for a three-pointer. A moment later, Perkins scored on a pass from Pierce. Then Pierce drove the lane for a layup, drawing a foul on Trevor Ariza and a gleeful roar from the stands.
Pierce had a game-high 16 points by halftime, a development that could only further Jackson's belief that his injury had been overdramatized. After Game 1, Jackson playfully suggested that Pierce - who was carried off the court and placed in a wheelchair before returning to make two big shots - was healed by angels. Asked before Sunday's game whether the Lakers' coaches had discussed Pierce and Perkins' injuries, Jackson said no.
"We discussed the wheelchair a little bit, but that's the only thing I think that was discussed," said Jackson, grinning. "First time I think we've ever seen it."
Bryant was called for two fouls in the first quarter, both for tussling with Allen, and neither one to his liking. He had words with referee Dan Crawford about the first call (at the defensive end) and with Bob Delaney about the second (on offense), which came with 1:59 left in the quarter. Odom soon joined Bryant on the bench after picking up two fouls in 21 seconds.
While the two Lakers stars sat, the Celtics opened the second quarter with a 10-0 burst and took a 30-22 lead. Bryant returned and hit two quick jumpers, but the relief was temporary. Pierce and Allen hit consecutive three-pointers to stretch the lead to 10 points. Then Bryant was tagged with his third foul for plowing over Pierce, and the crowd broke into a derisive chant of "Kooo-beee."
The Lakers' frustration was evident as they reached halftime down by 54-42. Pau Gasol missed two point-blank shots in the final seconds, then pounded his fist in the air and screamed after the buzzer, upset that no foul had been called.

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