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Paul Pierce finds plenty of room as he makes a run to the rim.For the first nine minutes of Sunday's 85-82 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, it looked like the Boston Celtics were back to being the Boston Celtics.
Remember the team that shares the ball, takes great shots, takes advantage of fast break opportunities, and locks down its opponent on the defensive end? Well, it was on display in the first frame, as the Celtics converted 12 of their first 15 field goal attempts (80 percent) and assisted on eight of those 12 baskets (including eight of their first nine shots).
During that dominant first quarter, Boston finished with an 8-0 edge in fastbreak points and a 10-4 advantage in points in the paint, all while holding the Timberwolves to 5-of-21 shooting (23.8 percent). And in the spirit of playing a thoroughly dominant quarter, the Celtics didn't turn the ball over a single time. The result was a 10-point lead four minutes in, and a 20-point advantage just four minutes after that. Ultimately, the Celtics carried a 32-13 edge into the second frame.
Unfortunately, the renaissance was a brief one, as, after a quarter of textbook basketball, the Celtics steadily began to resemble the team that had lost two straight games and six of their last 10 games overall, as they squandered what grew to be a 25-point lead, before recovering for a modest three-point win.
"[The] first quarter would be our blueprint, and then after that I didn't think we played very well," Celtics coach Doc Rivers told reporters in Minnesota. "But I thought we had a terrific first quarter. The ball was hopping, we kept the game simple, and then I thought we started over-thinking ourselves out on the floor."
The Timberwolves outscored the Celtics 69-53 over the final three quarters as Boston's attack mentality appeared to steadily evaporate as time went on. Perhaps they had coaxed themselves into a false sense of security given their outstanding effort in the first frame, or maybe they just grew complacent with such a hefty lead. Either way, the Wolves grew more and more confident as the Celtics stopped asserting themselves on both ends of the floor.
Minnesota outscored Boston in the paint in the second quarter, 10-2, and Boston's sudden reliance on outside shots resulted in a 4-of-17 shooting performance (23.5 percent) in the second frame. The Celtics no longer seemed interested in taking the best shot available, and while Rivers was ultimately satisfied with the open looks Boston was getting and simply missing, he did admit he wanted to see the ball run through the post more often over the final three frames.
The Celtics followed up their poor second quarter shooting with a 7-of-19 showing in the third frame, but, more importantly, allowed the Wolves to pour in 28 points in the quarter on 10-of-17 shooting (58.8 percent). Feeding off of the Celtics' newfound struggles, the Wolves cut the lead to a mere two points heading into the fourth quarter. The Celtics' shooting percentage -- at 80 percent after those first nine minutes of play -- dropped all the way to 41.4 percent heading into the final frame. Meanwhile, the Wolves' rose all the way to 39.7 percent, which, while still less than ideal, had risen significantly from their 23.8 percent figure in the opening frame.
"We just got complicated, you know?" Rivers said. "We [stopped] running what we were running. You could hear them on the floor, 'Let's do this one this time.' And I'm like, 'What's wrong with the one that just worked, and just keep it simple?' And then we started missing shots, honestly. I love the shots overall. I can't complain about it, but, like I tell our guys all the time, 'For us to be where we want to be, we have to be a team that can miss 20 shots in a row and still keep the same lead, because we're getting stops.' In the third quarter, we missed 10 or 15 shots in a row, but they were scoring, and that's where we've got to change there."
The sudden lack of aggression was another troubling matter. While the Celtics were clearly the go-getters in the opening frame, they failed to bottle that mindset for the remainder of the game. Even a guy like Delonte West -- who started at point guard in place of the injured Rajon Rondo (finger) and was credited by Rivers for setting the early tone for Boston -- couldn't coax his team into harnessing that first-quarter energy all over again.
The Wolves meanwhile, continued to fight, and assumed their first lead with 8:07 to play off of a Darko Milicic bucket in the paint. By game's end, it was the Wolves who held a 30-28 edge in paint points. Minnesota registered eight offensive rebounds in the final frame, which was perhaps the best indicator of their energy level being higher than the Celtics'. They were simply working harder on the glass, and when guys like Milicic and Michael Beasley couldn't flat-out secure the Wolves' misses, they were perfectly content batting the ball back out to teammates along the perimeter, where the Wolves reset their entire offense.
Fourth-quarter execution from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett saved the Celtics, and while Boston might have prevailed, the win won't inspire confidence, or do much to lessen the speculation surrounding the squad's recent struggles. Boston had a chance to send a message that it had overcome the woes of recent weeks, but ultimately settled for an ugly win over one of the NBA's worst teams.
Is it progress? Well, ugly wins are better than unforgivable losses.
Greg Payne is a student intern for ESPNBoston.com