The Celtics were thinking in playoff terms last night against the Orlando Magic. And the game reflected postseason intensity, the Celtics taking a 107-88 victory with the teams combining for eight technical fouls.
"It was like a statement game for us," said Paul Pierce, who scored 17 of his 24 points in the third quarter. "They won the season series [last year], so we wanted to make sure, if it comes down to the end, where we have the advantage."
This was a continuation of a season-long setting of standards, the Celtics (17-2) extending their winning streak to nine going into tomorrow's game against Indiana.
Pierce took up where he left off two nights earlier in Charlotte, where he had a strong fourth quarter in an 89-84 win. He posted his highest point total since mid-November, and nearly outscored the Magic in a 29-19 third quarter. He had 17 points in the period and missed a 3-pointer before being replaced with 27 seconds remaining.
The combination of Pierce's offense and team defense - the Magic scored just once from the field over a 5:14 period spanning both halves - gave the Celtics an 11-1 start to the second half and the momentum to coast in the final quarter. With Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Pierce on the bench, the Celtics extended their advantage to 89-73 on Leon Powe's dunk, which turned out to be the clinching points, with 8:26 to go.
Most of the statements were made with on-court plays, but there were plenty of verbal ones, also.
Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy got the technicals started 5:07 into the game. Van Gundy was whistled as Dwight Howard was called for goaltending and Anthony Johnson for a foul on Pierce's banker, leading to a 15-5 Celtic lead following a 4-point possession.
Rondo earned the first of five Celtic techs with 2:04 left in the opening quarter. Even Sam Cassell, who has yet to play this season, got into the act, ejected from the bench with 4:40 remaining in the first half.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers began his postseason press conference with self-interrogation.
"Well, that was an interesting game, a lot of technicals, didn't you think?" Rivers said. "I thought so, too.
"I was really proud of our guys, because I told them it was going to be a physical game. We had to make it as physical as we could, and just hang in there. There's going to be calls made and calls not made when it's played that way."
The Celtics set the tone early, but the Magic rallied to pull within 2 at halftime.
The Celtics seemed to have everything going their way early in the second quarter. But after Glen Davis's 16-footer gave them a 37-22 lead 2:37 into the quarter, things took a turn for the worse. First, Tony Allen sprained his right ankle on a drive.
Then Rashard Lewis (30 points) sparked the Magic, Allen returning late in the quarter to defend him but being unable to slow him down. Lewis scored 7 points in a 70-second span, his 3-pointer with 32 seconds to go cutting the Magic deficit to 48-46.
But Pierce led the way after halftime, compiling his best scoring total since he had 28 points in a 102-97 overtime win at Milwaukee Nov. 15, and his best at home since a 34-point performance in a 103-102 win over Atlanta Nov. 12.
Pierce scored 9 points in the first 3:37 of the half, while the Magic missed their first seven shots, the Celtics taking a 59-47 lead.
Orlando, playing without starters Keith Bogans (thumb) and Jameer Nelson (hip flexor), had a four-game winning streak broken
"You like playing teams like them because it gives your team something, too," Rivers said. "Both teams are up. And that's always nice.
"I call it a 'free speech night.' You don't have to talk a lot before a game when you play teams like that. But they have some injuries, and we understand that, too.
"The tough part about the regular season, compared to the playoffs - and this is why I always say you can't read into regular-season wins - is because you don't know during the regular season if teams have injuries, you don't know if they've played four in five.
"You don't have that problem in the playoffs. Everyone's rested, everyone plays, and it's different.