|Orlando's Jameer Nelson (left) knows full well to play keep away when Rajon Rondo (game-high four steals) is in the area. (Justine Hunt/Globe Staff)|
Through 25 games, no team in the NBA has been better than the Celtics, and not many teams in league history have been either.
The Celtics improved to an NBA-best 22-3 last night with a 103-91 victory over the Magic at TD Banknorth Garden. The NBA record for this point of the season is 23-2, achieved by Philadelphia (1966), New York (1969), and Chicago (1995). The Celtics also tied San Antonio for the best home record this season (14-1).
"I didn't have any expectations, honestly," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I know that's hard to believe, but I really didn't. I had an expectation that we were going to be a good team. But, as far as wins and losses, I didn't have a number by Christmas.
"The good thing, and I keep saying this . . . [is] we're playing OK. We're going to be so much better. We have a chance to be, if we keep on working on it, so much better than we are right now."
Said Celtics guard Ray Allen: "We've won games in a lot of different ways. We just want to keep winning."
Four Celtics starters scored at least 21 points: Allen (22), Paul Pierce (game-high 24), Rajon Rondo (23, tying his career high), and Kevin Garnett (21, with 12 rebounds). The Celtics shot 52.1 percent from the field, nailed 8 of 19 3-pointers and made 19 of 24 free throws.
The last time the Celtics had four players score at least 20 points during a regular-season game was May 5, 1999, when Pierce (27), Dana Barros (26), Ron Mercer (23), and Antoine Walker (23) led the home team past Charlotte, 133-129, in two overtimes.
"We had great distribution of the ball," Rivers said. "The 52 percent is what I'm more proud of."
The talented Magic (18-11) handed the Celtics their first loss, 104-102, in Orlando Nov. 18. Garnett said the focused Celtics wanted to make amends for that defeat.
The Celtics also completed a tough homestand against three Eastern Conference playoff teams from a season ago with a tough loss to Detroit followed with wins against Chicago and Orlando.
The next challenge is a West Coast road trip that begins Wednesday night and features four games in five days against Sacramento, Seattle, Utah, and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"We totally didn't like how we played when we were down in Orlando," said Garnett, who also had five assists and three blocks. "We thought we were better than that. We circled this, matter of fact, this week with Detroit, Chicago, and Orlando. So this was a huge week for us, especially with the West Coast trip coming up. We wanted to play really well, obviously, at home.
"We only play [the Magic] three times. There wasn't a whole lot to be said."
The Celtics took a 49-42 halftime lead after shooting 52.8 percent from the field. Despite shooting just 37.1 percent from the field, Orlando stayed close by nailing six 3-pointers and making 10 free throws in the first half.
The Celtics' only 3-pointer in eight tries in the first half came on Rondo's first of the season at the halftime buzzer.
The Celtics nailed 5 of 8 3-point attempts in the third quarter in taking a 78-64 lead. Pierce and Allen nailed two treys, Rondo hit another, and even Garnett tried a 3-pointer that didn't fall.
"We have guys that can knock down those shots," Pierce said. "I had a couple, Ray had some, and you know that's what happens when you play inside to out."
Orlando center Dwight Howard, who had team-highs of 23 points and 14 rebounds (but only made 5 of 16 free-throw attempts) said: "They did what they were supposed to do. They loaded the paint and flushed out for the other guys to shoot the threes."
The Magic got within 9 (85-76) on a dunk by Howard with 7:55 remaining but couldn't get closer. Even so, Rivers was still nervous about Orlando's perimeter shooting despite holding a 99-89 lead as the final minute approached.
"[Hell], with 51 seconds left I still was nervous because they make threes," Rivers said. "This team can shoot. They are so explosive. To hold them to 91 points and 44 percent [shooting from the field] was really nice."
There is still a lot of basketball to be played. But considering that these unsatisfied and focused Celtics have won 22 games this fast, despite entering the season with nine new players, it will be interesting to see what they can achieve in the next 25 games, then the next 25 games, and then the likely postseason.
"We aren't going to be perfect, but we can be close to it," Pierce said. "That's the type of level we want to get to."
Said Orlando guard Keyon Dooling: "When you play a team that good, there is no room for error. You have to play almost flawless, or pretty close to it."