BOSTON -- After leaving his starting five on the bench while the second string blew an 18-point lead -- and the game -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers felt he needed to explain himself.
"I was not throwing the game, or anything like that," he said Wednesday night after the Celtics lost 92-84 to the Charlotte Bobcats, their closest pursuers in the Greg Oden and Kevin Durant sweepstakes.
"I've heard all those questions," Rivers said before taking any questions in his postgame news conference. "Honestly, I got to the point early in the fourth quarter and I turned to the coaches and said to them, 'We are either going to win or lose with this group.'"
And they lost, a development not entirely unwelcome in Boston, which is 5½ games behind Charlotte, but pulling away from the Bobcats in the race for the second-worst record in the NBA. But Rivers said that wasn't his goal as much as teaching the bench players that they needed to produce when given the chance.
"Those are the guys that always [complain] about playing. ... But when you get in you've got to have fight," Rivers said. "That was the whole message. There was no other message. Hold the lead, win the game, have pride. Or lose the lead and show us what you don't have."
One night after overcoming a 10-point deficit to beat Cleveland in overtime, the Bobcats scored 18 straight points while Paul Pierce was out with an injury.
"[These are] some big wins, no question," said Raymond Felton, who had 19 points, five assists and three steals. "Now we got to keep it rolling, see what happens at the end of the season. Try to see if we can slide into that last spot."
Matt Carroll scored 15 for Charlotte, Alan Anderson had 14 and Gerald Wallace had 13 points and four of his eight rebounds in the fourth quarter. Brevin Knight added 10 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
Pierce scored 23 despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter after opening a cut on the inside of his mouth. Al Jefferson had 22 points and 11 rebounds and Kendrick Perkins had 13 and 11 for the Celtics, who had won three of their previous five home games but still have the worst home record in the NBA.
Pierce's injury "definitely hurt them. No question," Felton said. "But the way we were on that roll, the way we played, I think we still would have made it a game."
Boston led 67-51 with 4:02 left in the third when Pierce left the game after getting hit in the mouth and eye while going for a loose ball. Gerald Green made a layup to make it an 18-point game, then the Bobcats outscored the Celtics 41-15 the rest of the way.
Rivers said Pierce could have come back in the fourth quarter, but the coach wanted to give his second string a chance to play.
"They didn't have their one dominant go-to guy," Wallace said. "So a lot of the guys were forced to do some of the things they usually don't do."
The Celtics still led 74-70 when Carroll hit a 3-pointer, Felton hit a 3-pointer and then, after Wallace's steal, Carroll made a long 2-pointer to give the Bobcats the lead. Knight made a layup, Felton hit another 3 and Carroll made a pair of free throws before Jefferson tipped in his own miss to made it 82-76 and end the Bobcats' run.
Pierce scored 12 in the first, five of them during a 10-2 run at the end of the quarter that turned a four-point game into a 31-19 lead. The Bobcats made it 34-29 early in the second, but the Celtics scored eight straight -- four each from Gerald Green and Leon Powe.
New Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas took in the game from a courtside seat. ... Ryan Gomes returned after missing seven games with a sprained left foot just in time for his bobblehead night. The band from his Connecticut high school played the national anthem. ... Celtics boss Danny Ainge was back after scouting Yi Jianlian in China. ... Knight returned after missing four games with a strained groin.