There was no mistaking the feeling. It’s the one where the throat tumbles into the stomach and the sweat turns cold. The Celtics were in danger of losing – again – to the Chicago Bulls. That would be twice in six days and there would be no way to put a positive spin on that. ”A loss to the Bulls really sticks in your head,” Paul Pierce said. ”It was like, oh no, not again.”But, of course, it never came to that. Pierce had something to do with it; he erupted for 17 of his game-high 38 points in the fourth quarter and the Celtics rallied for a 107-101 victory at the FleetCenter last night, their eighth win in nine games. They remained a half-game behind New Jersey in the Atlantic Division race that is getting more improbable by the day.
This one, however, had an unusual twist in that the Celtics won with suffocating, stifling, maniacal defense in the fourth quarter. Without that, they would have lost and Pierce would have a headache until April, which is when these teams meet again.
Boston was staring at an 86-78 deficit with 9 minutes 3 seconds left. It was being outplayed and had no answers to the suddenly productive Bulls, who were envisioning their first road win of the season. Kenny Anderson was ejected and the Celtics had blown leads of 14 points (first quarter) and 11 points (second quarter).
During a television timeout with 8:39 to play, coach Jim O’Brien told his team it was playing not to lose. The Celtics came out of the break and scored 15 unanswered points, holding Chicago scoreless for 6 minutes 26 seconds.
”We broke down,” said Chicago sage Charles Oakley. ”They picked up the intensity and we couldn’t match it.”The Celtic defenders did everything in that stretch. They forced five turnovers, including successive 24-second violations. Eric Williams won a jump ball from Brad Miller. Chicago went empty on eight consecutive possessions as coach Tim Floyd desperately made lineup changes (five) and called a timeout, all in vain. It was an overpowering defensive effort not seen here in some time.
”Not since I’ve been here,” said Antoine Walker, who has been here since 1996. ”It was a great feeling. We came up with the big stops when we needed to.”Added Pierce, ”It seemed like we left our defense in the locker room until the fourth quarter, when it decided to come join us when we needed it most.” The defense was beautifully balanced at the other end. Pierce had 8 points in the run, the final 3 coming on a Princetonian back-door feed from Walker, which led to a 3-point play. Joe Johnson, making a rare fourth-quarter appearance, had 5 in the run, including a big 3-pointer and a timely follow of a Tony Battie miss.
Second-chance points were a huge ally; the Celtics had 25 thanks to a night of glass-assaulting that produced 22 offensive rebounds. Battie kept things alive – he had seven offensive rebounds – and that, along with the defensive persistence, wore down the visitors.
”We really picked it up defensively,” said Erick Strickland, who had the point guard duties down the stretch. ”We were active out front and one thing fed off another. Guys then made plays and it just kind of snowballed from there. Good things happened.”The run gave the Celtics a 93-86 lead with 3:17 left. Chicago got no closer than 3 the rest of the way as Boston scored 14 points in the final 2:30, all from the free throw line.
The game started as if the Celtics would enjoy a rare blowout. They made their first nine shots and built a 14-point lead. Chicago rallied, Boston pulled away again, Chicago came back again. Ron Mercer (23) and Marcus Fizer (18) were getting good looks and converting, and Celtic-killer Miller took over in the third. He had 5 points in a 7-0 run and the Bulls took the lead and nursed it for another 12 minutes. The Celtics trailed, 81-76, after three and by the aforementioned 8 when rookie Tyson Chandler made one of two free throws with 9:03 to play.
”Our guys have shown the ability to step it up when the game is on the line,” O’Brien said. ”At the end, our guys really get hungry.”They were downright voracious when it mattered last night.