For Kevin Garnett, it was just another way to be indispensable down the stretch.
"It was superstar on superstar," Celtics forward James Posey said. "He accepts those challenges, and we jumped on his back and he carried us to a win."
Garnett scored 11 of his 26 points in the last seven minutes, grabbing a steal with two minutes left and blocking a shot with just seconds remaining on Wednesday night to help the Boston Celtics beat the Houston Rockets 97-93 and earn their seventh consecutive victory.
Paul Pierce scored 19 points and assisted on four key baskets down the stretch as the Celtics improved to 27-3 to match the best 30-game start in the shot-clock era. Five other teams have lost just three of their first 30 games, including the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls who finished the season with an NBA-record 72 wins.
Quite a turnaround for a team that missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
"Used to be in my years in the league," said Rockets forward Shane Battier, pausing to smile, "let's just say you are more concerned coming in this building now. They have a three-headed monster -- (Ray) Allen, Garnett and Pierce. What a difference a year makes."
Yao had 19 points and 13 rebounds for the Rockets, who were without Tracy McGrady for the fourth consecutive game because of a sore left knee. Rockets coach Rick Adelman said he had no update on McGrady, who had previously been listed as day to day.
"He definitely made him uncomfortable on defense, and on offense he stretched him," Allen said. "Kevin made a lot of big shots down the stretch. ... You catch a little fire and he knocks down some shots for us. That was the difference."
The Celtics led by 20 points in the second quarter and eight points at the end of three. It was 78-70 with 10:29 left in the game when Rafer Alston and Bonzi Wells combined for nine straight points and Luis Scola hit two free throws, completing the 11-0 run and giving Houston an 81-78 lead.
The Rockets led 84-81 when Pierce hit Garnett for a short turnaround jumper and then Pierce came up with a loose ball, chucking it ahead to Allen for the fast-break layup that gave Boston the lead with 6:17 left. After Yao missed a baby hook, Garnett got the rebound and, at the other end, made a jumper from the right side of the basket as the shot clock expired.
Battier hit a 3-pointer to tie it 87-all, but Rajon Rondo made a surprisingly easy drive into the lane to give Boston the lead for good. Garnett hit a fallaway from the left side to make it 91-87 with 2:41 left, then hit a jumper to make it a four-point game.
After the Rockets called timeout with 2:22 left, Garnett came back on the court with his arms raised together like a ballet dancer preparing for a jump. The crowd rose to a throaty roar as Garnett's hands reached toward the 16 NBA championship banners in the rafters.
Alston, standing laneside awaiting the free throws, just smiled.
"When you play against the best in the league, you can't go in with low gas, you've got to have a lot of high octane," Garnett said. "I fed off this building, these fans are the spark plug and I just plugged in and didn't even think what I was doing."
Wells hit a pair of free throws, then Garnett hit one of two before stealing an entry pass to Yao. Pierce set up Garnett at the other end for a jumper that gave Boston a 94-89 lead, then did it again with a backward bounce pass to clinch the game with 22.2 seconds left.
Pierce jumped on Garnett's back in celebration.
|Boston rides K.G. to the finish line after he scores 11 points in the final seven minutes. (Getty Images)|
|Boston (27-3) «||30||23||23||21||97|
|HOU:B. Wells 25 Pts
HOU:Y. Ming 13 Reb
HOU:L. Scola 4 Ast
|BOS:K. Garnett 26 Pts
BOS:K. Garnett 9 Reb
BOS:R. Rondo 9 Ast
|Players of the Game|
|R. Alston, PG||44||8-16||1-1||1||2||0||18|
|Y. Ming, C||42||7-20||5-6||13||2||4||19|
|S. Battier, SF||36||2-7||0-0||2||1||3||6|
|L. Head, PG||33||4-11||0-0||0||3||0||10|
|C. Hayes, PF||14||2-4||0-0||6||1||4||4|
|B. Wells, SG||29||8-14||9-12||9||1||3||25|
|L. Scola, PF||22||2-4||3-4||7||4||3||7|
|A. Brooks, PG||11||1-4||0-0||2||3||1||2|
|M. James, PG||8||1-3||0-0||1||1||1||2|
|D. Mutombo, C||Did Not Play|
|T. McGrady, SG||Did Not Play|
|S. Francis, PG||Did Not Play|
|K. Snyder, SG||Did Not Play|
|S. Novak, SF||Did Not Play|
|C. Landry, PF||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|
|R. Allen, SG||43||6-15||0-0||2||2||0||13|
|P. Pierce, SG||40||7-12||3-6||6||7||0||19|
|K. Garnett, PF||35||11-15||4-6||9||3||2||26|
|R. Rondo, PG||33||6-11||1-2||5||9||0||13|
|K. Perkins, C||26||2-4||0-0||2||2||6||4|
|J. Posey, SF||23||0-5||1-2||4||1||4||1|
|E. House, SG||15||4-6||0-0||0||0||1||9|
|S. Pollard, C||14||4-5||2-3||5||1||6||10|
|T. Allen, SG||8||0-2||0-0||0||2||0||0|
|G. Davis, PF||2||1-2||0-0||1||0||1||2|
|B. Scalabrine, PF||Did Not Play|
|L. Powe, PF||Did Not Play|
|G. Pruitt, PG||Did Not Play|
|Complete Box Score|