ORLANDO — The Celtics pointed to this game on the schedule as critical. It was a matchup against an inferior opponent one night after being toasted by the streaking Miami Heat.
Coach Doc Rivers knew if his club played the way it was capable, two things could be accomplished: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could get a sharp, injury-free workout, and the Celtics could clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
By midway through the second quarter, it was obvious those goals were easily attainable against the overwhelmed Orlando Magic. Pierce and Garnett combined for 26 points and 15 rebounds, and the Celtics built a double-digit second-quarter lead they never relinquished in a 120-88 win on Saturday night at Amway Center.
The Celtics sealed the No. 7 seed and a likely first-round playoff matchup with the New York Knicks. Now they can spend their final four days of the regular season resting and experimenting with various rotations.
Rivers wanted to avoid heading back to Boston for Tuesday’s game with the Indiana Pacers with any type of playoff consequences, and his club pounced on the downtrodden Magic by scoring a season high in points and clearing the bench as Pierce and Garnett sat next to each other, swapped stories, and cheered teammates.
“I think when you put the veterans out there, me and Kevin, it really brings the rest of the team at a certain ease,” said Pierce, who finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 8 assists in 27 minutes. “Everybody understands their role now once you have me and Kevin out there. When we’re not out there sometimes things change, and it’s hard to make the adjustment. But once we’re out there, everybody eases into their role and that creates the chemistry for us and that’s why it looked easy tonight.”
It was an encouraging performance considering the Celtics had dropped two in a row, looking fatigued in losses to Brooklyn and Miami. The Celtics shot 59.3 percent and had seven players in double figures, led by Courtney Lee’s 20 points. Jeff Green, who left Friday’s game with a bruised elbow, played 37 minutes Saturday and had 17 points.
After struggling from beyond the arc against the Heat, the Celtics were 10 for 16, including an encouraging two treys from Avery Bradley, who has struggled from long distance. The Celtics left Amway Center injury-free, victorious, and encouraged after a rare blowout win. It was a satisfying trip to Orlando.
“It’s very important, you know we’re working on something here,” said Garnett, who picked up 14 points and nine rebounds in 19 minutes. “I felt like the ball movement was excellent tonight. Obviously Doc commented on the seriousness of the game. Defensively we were very sound and it was very much a game in which we continued to build. It was a good game for us.”
And it was the rare occasion that Rivers could play the starting lineup he will use in that potential first-round playoff series against the Knicks. While the painfully young Magic are hardly playoff caliber, the Celtics avoided their disturbing pattern of playing to the level of their opponent.
That cost them in a disheartening home loss to the Cavaliers April 5 and nearly resulted in a defeat against the Pistons two days before that. With their full roster back, the Celtics played with passion Saturday. Green scored the first 5 points of the game and the Celtics never trailed, leading by as many as 37 (115-78).
The Magic have played hard this season under first-year coach Jacque Vaughn, but they were victimized by mistakes and missed shots, committing 20 turnovers and shooting 42.2 percent.
Any concern about how Pierce and Garnett would fare coming off rest was erased when they both scored early buckets. Garnett drained a jumper at the 10:16 mark while Pierce followed with a layup for a 10-2 lead with 7:42 left in the opening period.
Ex-Magic forward Brandon Bass added 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots as he improved his shooting percentage to 56.8 percent since the All-Star break. His running 12-footer completed a 27-15 run to begin the second half for a 79-52 lead, and Rivers was able to clear the bench and allow the reserves some playing time.
The reserves were 20-for-28 shooting for 49 points, including 16 from the improving Jordan Crawford, who tallied 20 in Friday’s loss to Miami.
After allowing an alarming 16-for-19 shooting in the second quarter Friday against the Heat, the Celtics forced the Magic into perimeter jumpers and held Orlando to 32.7 percent shooting in the first half. With staunch defense, the Celtics made their night rather easy in the second half.
“I just thought we had a lot of good rhythm and a lot of good work,” Rivers said. “We really wanted to establish Kevin, just get him some post rhythm. I thought the last weeks, two weeks, we really got out of that. To get him back, that was nice. So it was a lot of good things, defensively it was terrific.”