With win, Celtics clinch the division
The Celtics were missing Ray Allen’s perimeter game and Rajon Rondo’s creativity Wednesday night. But Paul Pierce turned playmaker and also finished things off with down-the-stretch scoring as the Celtics took a 102-98 win over the Orlando Magic, clinching their fifth successive Atlantic Division title.
Pierce went for a 29-point, 14-assist double-double and wrapped things up for the Celtics (37-26) with 4 points in the final seven seconds.
As division champions, the Celtics are assured of no worse than a No. 4 Eastern Conference seed, buying rest and recuperation time for starters and key reserve Mickael Pietrus (who missed this game with a knee injury) as they close out the regular season with a visit to Atlanta Friday and two home games next week.
“I’m not about to go pop some champagne bottles or anything like that - I know they do in baseball,’’ Pierce said of the division championship. “I mean, it’s a good accomplishment, I guess. But all we care about around here is a championship banner. I guess it’s just a step toward the journey we are trying to go towards.’’
The Celtics, who are 22-9 since the All-Star break, went with a starting backcourt of Avery Bradley and Sasha Pavlovic.
“It’s a neat group,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I’ve talked about it all year. They just kind of figure it out. I mean, Avery was terrific. You know, you could see down the stretch, execution, being the point. He had to play the point the whole night and I don’t think he could’ve done that early in the year. It’s a great thing what confidence does.’’
Pierce ignited the Celtics at the start with eight assists as they took a 33-22 first-quarter lead. Pierce surpassed his career-high of 13 assists in the third quarter as the Celtics went on a 10-0 run over the final 2:30 for a 79-70 advantage.
The Magic, lacking Dwight Howard’s inside strength and Hedo Turkoglu’s outside threat, rallied to within 1 point of the lead from a 13-point deficit in the final quarter.
After E’Twaun Moore’s 3-pointer gave the Celtics a 91-78 advantage with 7:25 left, Orlando retaliated with a 14-2 run over a 3:58 span.
Ryan Anderson’s free throw cut the Magic deficit to 93-92 with 2:47 to go. Pierce then hit a jumper and Brandon Bass (21 points) followed a Pierce miss for a 5-point Celtic edge with 1:41 remaining. Kevin Garnett made a free throw off a defensive rebound to make it 98-92 with 1:31 left.
J.J. Redick got a layup and former Celtic Glen Davis (27 points) stepped between Bradley (23 points) and Garnett for a steal and dunk with 31 seconds to play. But Pierce then hit a jumper over Davis with 7.6 seconds on the clock. Jameer Nelson scored on a drive with 3.8 left, then Pierce converted twice from the foul line with 2.9 to go.
“Huge win. We had some lapses at the end right there, that’s because Baby [Davis] knows all our plays,’’ Garnett joked. “Other than the miscommunication, I thought we played well. They made runs, we had to expect that - they’re a well-coached team and they have players who can put points on the board. But for the most part, I thought our schemes were very solid.’’
Garnett said he feels vindicated by the Celtics’ revival in recent weeks.
“Never count us out,’’ Garnett said. “One of the hardest things, I’ve always said in this league, is to create chemistry. I think that’s what you’ve seen since the All-Star break, we’ve come back refreshed, focused.
“Like I said, we haven’t had a lot of practice time to implement our system, our schemes. But we do have a core here and what’s what you’ve seen, obviously, to come a point where we’ve won the division - it’s confidence and believing in that system and believing in that confidence and believing in that rhythm and riding that rhythm out.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.