BOSTON -- The Phoenix Suns saw the best of the Eastern Conference in back-to-back games.
"It's a toss-up," Phoenix guard Steve Nash said Wednesday night after the Boston Celtics beat the Suns 117-97, two days after they lost to the Detroit Pistons. "Both terrific teams; two of the favorites, that's for sure."
Kevin Garnett scored 30 points, sinking the final two to an "M-V-P!" chant echoing through the new Boston Garden, and Paul Pierce had 12 of his 27 in the fourth quarter to help the Celtics snap a two-game losing streak.
"I couldn't have imagined it a year ago," Pierce said, thinking back to the seven-for-one trade that bought Garnett out of Minnesota over the summer. "The whole face of the Celtics turned around when the trade happened with this guy. Everyone talks about MVP, and they talk about numbers, but this guy has changed the whole culture around here."
Kendrick Perkins had 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Ray Allen had 14 points and eight assists for Boston, which snapped a two-game losing streak. Rajon Rondo scored 14 with six rebounds and six assists while pestering Shaquille O'Neal into a technical foul as Boston turned a tie game into a double-digit lead in the third.
Amare Stoudemire scored 32 and O'Neal had 16 with seven rebounds for the Suns, who brought a seven-game winning streak into Detroit on Monday night but lost 110-105 in overtime.
"In order to come out of the East, they're going to have to go through each other, no doubt about that," O'Neal said. "Both those teams ... you have to play damn near perfect basketball, especially at their place. And tonight we didn't do that."
The Celtics beat Phoenix for the first time in six tries and just the third time since 2001, improving to 24-5 this season against the otherwise superior Western Conference and an NBA-best 56-15 overall. Garnett, who also had six assists, is the main reason why.
Garnett was 12-for-19 from the field, showing his repertoire of baby hooks and short-range fallaways. He was also 6-for-6 from the line, sinking a pair of free throws with six minutes left as the crowd chanted for him to claim his second NBA MVP Award.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before the game that he wouldn't get involved in an MVP campaign that seems to be settling into a race between Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Given a chance to make a case for Garnett, Rivers said, "Our record."
O'Neal won the award in 2000 with Los Angeles before a well-publicized rift with Bryant led the Lakers to split the pair up. Asked who he liked in the MVP race, though, O'Neal said, "The Kobester. He's an assassin."
"With LeBron (James) coming in right behind," O'Neal added. "After that, I really haven't been paying attention."
What about Garnett?
"I'm going to have to go with my guy" -- Stoudamire -- "before him," O'Neal said. "All day, every day."
The Celtics padded the lead at the end of the third quarter with a flurry of good defense. After Allen set up Garnett for a 20-footer from the left side, Eddie House stole the half-court inbound pass and fired up a desperation 3 at the buzzer that rolled around the rim and went out.
The Celtics took a 15-point lead in the first quarter, then gave up 10 straight points and it was tied at 57 at the half. It was 65-65 when the Celtics scored six straight points, and 15 of the next 19, including a four-point play by James Posey after Stoudemire knocked him down after sinking a 3-pointer.
After Rondo drove for a layup to make it a 10-point game, the pesky point guard frustrated O'Neal and prodded him into an elbow that drew a technical foul. Allen sank the free throw with 1:24 left in the third to make it 80-69.
- Nash picked up a technical foul in the second quarter.
- Garnett played just 5:39 of the first quarter after picking up two quick fouls.
- Leon Powe helped the Celtics with his hustle basket near the end of the first quarter, when he went to the floor to grab a loose ball and then, unable to find an outlet, put up a layup from his knees and drew a foul.
- House's only two baskets were back-to-back 3-pointers with just under five minutes left.