With the exception of 49 seconds, the Celtics' bench did all the dirty work down the stretch last night.
Although Boston entered the fourth quarter up just 3 points, the reserves played nearly the entire final 12 minutes en route to a 111-100 victory over the struggling Los Angeles Clippers at sold-out TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics received a career-high 24 points from starting point guard Rajon Rondo, but also 44 points from the bench.
"Great win for us when you're able to rest as many guys as you can rest and still win the game," said coach Doc Rivers. "I thought our bench was terrific."
The Celtics are 21-4 at home, 9-1 after a loss, 9-1 in the second of back-to-back games, and 14-0 against the Western Conference.
"[The Celtics] have one of the best special units," said Clippers forward Corey Maggette, who scored a game-high 33 points. "Just so many options. They played really well tonight."
Boston is 3-2 without star forward Kevin Garnett, who sat out his fifth straight game with an abdominal strain. Rivers said a decision will be made today on whether Garnett will attend tomorrow's game in Minneapolis, although he won't play.
Garnett has attended games in Orlando, Miami, and Cleveland during his absence from the lineup, but has stayed in the locker room. If Garnett does attend the game against the Timberwolves, Rivers said the only time he would be on the floor is if his former franchise plans to honor him. As of yesterday, the Timberwolves weren't expected to have anything extravagant planned for Garnett's return.
"The priority here is to focus on what's wrong with me and try to get it better," Garnett said. "I'm eager. It's hard for me to watch my guys out there playing without me."
Rondo entered last night averaging 18 points during Garnett's absence. Rivers has said of late that the second-year guard has been playing the best basketball of his career. Last night, Rondo made 10 of 13 shots, and added 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals in 29 minutes.
"I'm just trying to do what the system says," Rondo said. "I'm trying to stay within the system."
Earlier in the day, guard Sam Cassell said he was hoping to be bought out of his contract with the Clippers, which would allow him to sign with Boston. The 38-year-old added that he would have no problems playing behind Rondo.
But with 2:54 remaining in the second quarter, Cassell received a flagrant-2 foul for slapping Rondo hard on the head during a lay-in attempt, and was ejected. Rondo, who already had gauze in his right nostril, made 1 of 2 free throws to give Boston a 49-40 lead. Cassell, who wasn't available for comment afterward, left with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in 16 minutes.
"It wasn't nothing," Rondo said. "I got right back up, and I just thought, make my free throws."
Rivers said: "In my day, that probably wouldn't have even been called."
The Celtics led, 59-48, at halftime after shooting 51.1 percent. Rondo had 18 points through two quarters, while Paul Pierce, who was hampered by flu-like symptoms a night earlier in a loss at Cleveland, had 13 of his 15 points. Maggette scored 22 in the half.
"Turnovers in the first half led to layups, fast-break points, and things that hurt us," said Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy. "But our guys, they stayed with it. They kept coming back, and, unfortunately, they couldn't close it out."
The Clippers outscored the Celtics, 33-25, in the third quarter to trim their deficit to 3 (84-81). The Celtics had reserves Tony Allen (17 points), Leon Powe (13 points, 10 rebounds), Eddie House, Glen Davis, and James Posey on the floor entering the fourth quarter. A put-back by Powe gave Boston a 103-91 lead with 5:56 remaining.
The Clippers used a 9-4 run to trim their deficit to 107-100. Rivers put starters Rondo, Pierce, and Ray Allen (19 points) back in the game with 49 seconds left, and the Celtics made four free throws to close it out.
"When Coach puts us out there, he expects us to perform and get the job done," Powe said. "He expects the best from us and we expect the best from ourselves. And that's how Coach holds us accountable as a team."
Said Pierce: "[The reserves] really stepped up."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com.