Holding their place
Celtics refuse to let go of opportunity
ORLANDO, Fla. - The Celtics started yesterday without captain Paul Pierce, home recovering from a knee infection.
They concluded an 86-77 win over the Orlando Magic with Kevin Garnett on the bench, feeling the effects of a late-game fall.
But the Celtics were in an upbeat mood afterward, knowing Pierce could return sooner than the two weeks originally projected and that Garnett was moving around well in the locker room. They were certainly feeling better than they were when they were eliminated by the Magic in last season’s playoffs, and when they lost to Orlando last month.
“It definitely was a benchmark game for us because we’ve talked about this game for the last month or so,’’ said Ray Allen (18 points).
“After they beat us [83-78 in Boston Nov. 20] we knew we were playing them here on Christmas Day. Everybody was focused and we took care of the game and we all feel good about it, and it does propel us going forward.’’
The Celtics took command late in the first half, extending their lead to 14 points in the third quarter, then finishing strong, despite losing Garnett for the final minute.
“It was a good win for us,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “No. 1, it’s Orlando, they’re the team we have to beat, they’re the defending Eastern Conference champs and we understand that. More importantly, it’s the first game of a long road trip. And we have to go on the West Coast and do our jobs.’’
The Celtics compensated for Pierce’s absence with Tony Allen, making his first start since last season, and Brian Scalabrine defending Vince Carter. They slowed Carter (27 points) just enough. Although Kendrick Perkins got into early foul trouble, Rasheed Wallace’s 32-minute stint reinforced the inside defense and even Glen Davis was effective in his first appearance of the season, as the Magic’s Dwight Howard was held to one field goal.
But it wasn’t until Rajon Rondo (17 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists) shifted into gear that the Celtics’ offense took off. .
The Celtics went nine possessions spanning the opening quarters without a field goal before Perkins’s shot-clock buzzer shot cut the deficit to 25-22 with 7:25 left in the half. That seemed to get the Celtics untracked, as they went on an 18-2 run, holding the Magic scoreless for 4:30 and to one field goal over the final 7:53 of the half (the streak extended to 10:38 spanning the halves).
The Celtics outscored Orlando, 20-8, in the second quarter.
“That was a turning point for us,’’ Rivers said. “I thought that was a terrific stretch for us.’’
Ryan Anderson provided the Magic with a 25-20 lead, the Celtics scoring the next 10 points. Rondo’s steal and 3-point play provided the first lead, 28-25, with 4:04 remaining. Tony Allen converted in transition and the Magic scored on a Jameer Nelson jumper with 3:23 to go out of a 20-second timeout.
Tony Allen’s second-chancer restored the 5-point edge, sparking a half-closing 8-point run. Rondo scored in transition off a Perkins block, Perkins got a layup off a Rondo feed, and Perkins scored again with 48 seconds left for a 38-27 advantage.
The Magic shot 4 for 22 (.181) in the second quarter, tying a team low for points in a quarter.
“It really is difficult when both of your small forwards are out of your offense and your defense,’’ Rivers said. “But I thought Tony had stretches of great play, Scal had stretches of great play. The small lineup with Eddie [House], Ray, and Rondo was good.
“A lot of good things happened for us. Our defense won the game. We talked about it for two days - the only way we’re going to win this game is in a defensive game. We’re not going to come in without Paul Pierce and shoot them out of the game, that wasn’t going to happen. We were going to have a great defensive team and we were. It was not the prettiest ball - I can tell you both teams played tremendous defense, by the way. We didn’t lose points in that stretch - no one was scoring. It was ugly ball. But I don’t necessarily think that’s bad basketball, I think that’s two teams playing extremely hard and playing great defense.’’
Rondo, who did not have an assist in the opening half, dished out five in a 2:01 span as the Celtics held a 61-53 lead after three quarters.
“Rajon was an attacker,’’ Rivers said. “He was in a great mind-set. He is rarely emotional, but you could physically see it at the start of the game - Rajon wanted to win this game.’’
The Magic got within 4 (76-72) in the late going, but the Celtics closed out the contest.
Lewis’s drive pulled Orlando within 6 (76-70), the Celtics calling a timeout with 1:49 remaining. Rondo missed a jumper and Orlando called a timeout with 86 seconds left, Nelson cutting the deficit to 4 with 1:22 to play. Garnett made it 78-72 with two foul shots with 1:08 remaining. Lewis cut the deficit to 3, Garnett going down under the basket after contact with Tony Allen and Carter. Lewis then missed a 3-pointer, Ray Allen rebounded, and hit two foul shots to make it 82-75 with 30.9 seconds on the clock.