BOSTON (AP) -- For the first time in a long time, a playoff type of atmosphere returned to Boston.
Paul Pierce scored 23 of his 32 points in the second half for the Celtics.
"It definitely got loud today," said Paul Pierce, who scored
23 of his 32 points in the second half Wednesday night as the
Boston Celtics gained ground on the Eastern Conference-leading New
Jersey Nets with a 97-89 victory.
Pierce went 6-for-8 from 3-point range, and Antoine Walker's 30 points included a 3-pointer with 19.8 seconds left as Boston won
its sixth consecutive game and pulled within three games of New
Jersey in the Atlantic Division.
"We are still the best in the East, and we're not hearing any footsteps," said Jason Kidd, who had 23 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists for the Nets.
Vitaly Potapenko had 12 rebounds, and Kenny Anderson had 10 assists and a key basket for Boston after the Nets erased an
eight-point deficit to tie the score 89-all with 1:53 left. The Celtics scored the last eight points of the game, igniting a crowd that has been waiting since 1995 for the once-proud franchise to return to the playoffs.
"That's playoff basketball," Pierce said. "I'd love to be a part of it every day."
Pierce isn't speaking from experience, having missed the
playoffs in each of his three previous seasons. But five weeks from
now, he and Walker will get their chance to experience a playoff
atmosphere for real.
"It's hard for me to say. I've never been in the playoffs," said Walker, who's in his sixth year without a postseason appearance. "I think you just saw two very good teams battling."
Boston led 88-80 before the Nets got consecutive three-point
plays from Aaron Williams and Kidd. The Nets trailed 88-86 when Lucious Harris went to the free throw line with a chance to tie it, but he missed the first and made the second.
Pierce hit one free throw, then Kidd hit a long 2-pointer to tie
it 89-all with 1:53 to go. Eric Williams hit a 3-pointer with 90
seconds left; on Boston's next possession, Anderson missed a
jumper, got the ball back and hit a jumper to give Boston a
five-point lead with 51 seconds left, waving his arms in the air as
the crowd went into a frenzy.
After Keith Van Horn missed a fallaway jumper, Walker hit a 3-pointer to clinch it.
The Celtics have now beaten Eastern Conference playoff contenders Philadelphia, Orlando, Detroit, Washington (twice) and New Jersey during the winning streak. New Jersey lost four straight on a West Coast swing before beating Toronto on a last-second shot Tuesday night.
"They're close. They're right there," said Nets coach Byron Scott, whose team has lost seven straight on the road. "It's going to go down to the wire."
The Nets haven't made the playoffs since 1998, haven't won a postseason game since '94 and haven't made it out of the first round since 1984 -- the only time in the franchise's NBA history that it has won a playoff series.
The last time the Celtics made the playoffs, in 1995, they lost 3-1 to Orlando in the first round. The Celtics, who have an NBA-record 16 world championships, haven't won a playoff series since 1992 and haven't won it all since '86 -- the longest drought in franchise history.
Pierce, who scored 46 in the second half and overtime of Boston's last game against the Nets on Dec. 1 when Boston won 105-98, had 15 in the third quarter, hitting a 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and give Boston a 74-69 lead.
Williams opened the fourth with a baseline jumper from the left
of the basket, and Richard Jefferson answered with a jumper from
the left of the key to make it 76-71. After Potapenko made one free
throw, Pierce hit another 3 to give the Celtics a nine-point lead,
their biggest of the game.
The league fined Nets coach Byron Scott $7,500 for publicly
criticizing officials after a 96-90 loss at Seattle last Saturday.
"I had to say something about how that game was officiated," he
said before Wednesday's game. "Players wouldn't respect me if I
didn't say something." ... Walker and Pierce had 21 of Boston's 25
points in the first quarter. Walker had 21 by himself at the half.
... The Celtics are 6-0 with Tony Battie sidelined with swelling in