Celtics 109, Magic 106

A spark is provided

Return of Garnett gives the Celtics a lift

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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It was like Kevin Garnett’s world was pitch black for two weeks.

That’s what an injury does to his psyche.

He strained his right calf in Detroit, the sight of it looked serious, the reality was that he’d play again.

But the waiting — the process of traveling knowing he couldn’t play or watching games from the locker room because his body wouldn’t allow him to be on the floor — was the difficult part.

“Being hurt, I hate it,’’ he said. “I don’t deal with it well.’’

He spent nine games away. He practiced twice, torturing himself with the idea of coming back sooner than expected and playing last week.

But he didn’t feel comfortable until he got the seal of approval from Paul Pierce.

“I’ve known him since I was 13 or 14,’’ Garnett said. “I value his word. He told me I looked good. I told him I felt strong.’’

Garnett scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Celtics’ 109-106 win over the Magic last night, but the numbers do nothing to capture the energy.

To be on the court again, not just for any game, but a prime time game against the Magic, was like taking shots of adrenaline. Because while everyone else was thinking about Garnett’s injury, Garnett was thinking about Christmas Day, when the Celtics let an all-too-comfortable fourth-quarter lead slip away.

“The last two minutes, when we played down there, they took over the last two minutes,’’ Garnett said. “They totally ran that. We talked about it on the way home. We talked about it yesterday after practice. We talked about it again before the game.’’

The loss left them equal parts bitter and petty, and afterward, the Celtics started picking apart Dwight Howard’s game.

Garnett called it predictable.

“Spin lob,’’ he said. “Or jump hook.’’

Last night, when Howard went glass from 11 feet out in the fourth quarter it couldn’t have been clearer that he was trying to open up his entire repertoire. But at the important moments, Garnett seemed to have it all memorized.

With 1:53 left in the game, Howard handed the ball to Hedo Turkoglu and set a quick screen before making a beeline to the basket. Garnett rushed to meet him at the spot. He fouled Howard hard, sending him to the line.

But before Howard got there, they stared each other down. Howard stuck his tongue out at Garnett, relishing the contact. Having gone without that rush for more than two weeks, Garnett was stone-faced.

Howard went to the line 18 times last night, but with the game in the balance, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was glad Garnett had the wits to send the Magic center there.

“Listen, he’s not a good free throw shooter,’’ Rivers said. “He’s going to make some, but I know he’ll make a dunk. That’s a fact, so it was a good foul.’’

Howard split the free throws and, from that moment, the Celtics took control.

Garnett hit a pair of free throws to put the Celtics ahead, 104-102.

And after Jameer Nelson knocked down a quick pull-up to tie it again, Paul Pierce (14 points) dealt the dagger, stepping back on Jason Richardson, drilling a shot from his sweet spot at the right elbow, and drawing the foul. He converted the 3-point play in the most matter-of-fact game-winning sequence imaginable.

When it was time to seal it up, Garnett was there to make one last stop, stripping Nelson and botching the Magic’s decisive possession.

“I was just trying to be active,’’ Garnett said. “I knew I saw a passing lane, and a steal was there. The lane was there, I saw the lane and I took the ball.”

Howard finished with 33 points and 13 rebounds, but the Celtics walked away with their third straight win, snapping Orlando’s three-game Garden winning streak.

The impact of Garnett’s presence was obvious.

“We look like a totally different team just with Kevin on the court,’’ Pierce said. “You can’t replace what Kevin gives to a ball club. He doesn’t always show up in the numbers, but his presence is felt. His feel for the game and everything he does for this team goes far beyond the numbers.

“We look like a team who is ready, who is energized, who is locked in. He raises our play when he’s on the court.’’

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