SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Paul Pierce hit a 3-pointer in Ron Artest's face and then talked about it all the way upcourt. Artest replied with a driving layup, which provided another topic of conversation.
The two frustrated stars led their losing clubs by example -- and in the final minutes, Artest and his Kings did just enough to hand Pierce's Celtics yet another defeat.
Kevin Martin scored 22 points and Artest added 18 and a key blocked shot as Sacramento sent the Celtics to their 19th loss in 20 games, 104-101 Tuesday night.
The Kings managed just one field goal and five points in the final 9:37, but still survived Boston's late rally. Brad Miller scored the game's last points on two free throws with 1:37 to play, and Artest swatted Al Jefferson's shot under the basket to thwart one of Boston's several attempts to get closer.
Artest and Pierce are passing acquaintances, like most NBA stars, but they clearly relished their marquee matchup. Perhaps it was a welcome diversion from the day-to-day grind with two teams struggling to maintain respectability.
"We're not really buddies off the court," Artest said. "We talk a little trash to each other, but Paul has a big heart. We have a good time out there."
Pierce scored 26 points and Delonte West had 23 before missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the Celtics, whose franchise-record 18-game losing skid ended with a win over Milwaukee right before the All-Star break. The Celtics opened a five-game West Coast road trip over seven days with a solid effort, but another loss.
"We're still trying to learn how to win," Pierce said. "We're like the little-brother team in the NBA. We need to learn from games like this. ... It was the little things that cost us, like turnovers and offensive rebounds. We have to learn how to work. We're in a little gutter right now."
Boston trailed by 11 with 9:37 to play, but Pierce scored five quick points before the Celtics pulled within 102-101 on rookie Rajon Rondo's confident jumper with 1:57 left. But Sacramento held on for its 11th straight home victory over the Celtics, who haven't won at Arco Arena since 1996.
Boston also lost forward Wally Szczerbiak to his fourth ankle injury of the season. The Celtics' young roster committed 33 fouls, leading to 48 free throws for Sacramento.
"I'll take the defense in the final 8 minutes, but where were we the first 40?" Celtics coach Doc Rivers asked. "It was a miracle we were still in a game when a team shoots that many free throws."
Miller had 12 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the Kings in his first game back from a four-game absence with a foot injury. Mike Bibby, frequently mentioned in trade rumors, scored 10 points -- none after the first quarter.
"We just wanted to avoid the sluggishness after the break, and we finished it off," Martin said. "It happens to everybody in this situation."
Szczerbiak sprained his left ankle in the first quarter when he stepped on Pierce's foot. Szczerbiak has missed 18 games with injuries this season, including 17 after spraining both of his ankles on three separate occasions previously.
"It's pretty painful right now," Szczerbiak said. "I just have to see how it reacts [Wednesday], and what the plan is for the rest of the trip. I just have to find out ... why this keeps happening. Hopefully I can get to the bottom of this. It's just going to be a pain to shoot."
Referee Dick Bavetta worked his first game since losing a footrace to Charles Barkley on All-Star Saturday. "Hope you didn't bet the house on that one," Bavetta said jokingly to longtime Kings broadcaster Gary Gerould before the game. "I wouldn't want you to be homeless." ... Boston's Gerald Green committed four fouls in just 3 minutes in the first half of his first game since winning the All-Star Saturday dunk contest. Green finished with four points. ... Actor Donnie Wahlberg watched from a front-row seat near Boston's bench his annual Sacramento pilgrimage to see his beloved Celtics. Rondo nearly landed in his lap in the fourth quarter while diving to save a ball.