For the first 42 minutes of the Celtics' first-half finale at TD Garden, it looked like another simple case of the C's jaded veterans slacking off against a lesser opponent. They built up early leads of 8-0, 10-1 and 13-4 against the visiting New Jersey Nets, and then in characteristic fashion, the C's coughed them up.
Perhaps letting their minds wander from beating the Nets to making vacation plans for the All-Star break, the Celtics let their focus waver. They let the Nets tie the game at halftime, 46-46, and then again at the end of the third quarter, 70-70.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that both teams upped the intensity and decided to really fight for it.
"It was a chippy game," C's coach Doc Rivers quipped afterward. "I think guys were ready to go on break."
The Celtics managed to find their focus for the pivotal final minutes, going on a 16-0 run in crunch time to bury the Nets. After 42 minutes of sloppy execution and questionable defensive effort, they decided to wait before mentally taking off for the All-Star break.
"We were just trying to put this team away," said Paul Pierce, who dropped a game-high 31 points. "These pesky Nets — they do everything they can to win. We just tried to grind it out. I thought it was very important for us to pick up our play in the fourth quarter and make a run. This team is an emotional team, and when we lose, guys feel it. It probably wouldn't have been a fun weekend for us if we'd lost this game."
Against a Nets team that had lost seven of its last 10 and sat 12th in the Eastern Conference at 17-39, the Celtics were in serious danger of an embarrassing loss. Back-to-back jumpers from Devin Harris and Brook Lopez midway through the fourth quarter had given the Nets a slight lead, 78-77. But then Ray Allen hit a 3, Pierce followed with a couple buckets, and suddenly New Jersey's momentum was gone.
"We realized how close the game was and we needed to get it done," Glen Davis said. "But we can't play like that. I think that for the last game of the first half of the season, we needed to leave a better impression."
The Celtics haven't lit the world on fire this February — they've merely treaded water with just barely the East's best record. They've weathered injuries and inconsistent play to produce a 4-3 record for the month.
They're still a top-notch team, but frankly they look like a team that desperately needs a break. Now they have one. After a hard-earned win Sunday over Miami and another Wednesday over the Nets, they get a little more time to relax.
"This was a long stretch to be off, really," Rivers said. "We were talking about it today — we played Sunday afternoon, so it was almost like having Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off. One of the things I did think we'd have would be our legs today. I wasn't worried about that.
"It's a great way to go into break, with one game in four days, and then four more days off. So when we do get back, going out West, I think that we can get a couple bodies and be fresher than this."