SAN ANTONIO -- Kevin Garnett writhed and whooped from the bench while missing another fourth quarter for Boston.
No matter. The Celtics were just happy he was there.
Returning to the Boston lineup after missing 13 games with a knee injury, Garnett scored 10 points before sitting out the fourth as a precaution while the rest of the Celtics held off the San Antonio Spurs in a thrilling 80-77 victory on Friday.
"I felt really good," Garnett said. "Doc and I talked about strategy and minutes, and he said he'd go by the way I felt. I missed a couple of assignments, but overall it was good for me. Hopefully I can build on this and contribute."
Tony Parker scored 25 points for the Spurs but missed four consecutive free throws in the final minute that doomed San Antonio. In all, the Spurs missed their last six free throws in the final 2:32.
Afterward, the Celtics were as happy to leave San Antonio with the nail-biting victory as they were to have their All-Star forward back.
So, too, was Garnett, who also had four rebounds and hit his final five shots. He played just 15 minutes in the first and third quarters, which is all coach Doc Rivers committed Garnett to playing before the game.
And for the time he wasn't playing?
"And there was my cheerleading," Garnett said. "I thought I did a good job of that. I just didn't have my pom-pons."
Ray Allen scored 19 points and Kendrick Perkins hit a short fallaway with 2:10 left that wound up being the winner for Boston, which plays at Memphis on Saturday. Rivers said Garnett wouldn't play against the Grizzlies if he had any tightness.
Tim Duncan had 15 points for the Spurs who, like the Celtics, are fighting to hold onto their high playoff seeding. The loss cut San Antonio's lead over Houston to one game for the No. 2 seed with the Rockets coming to town Sunday.
The Spurs missed six consecutive free throws in the final 2:32, starting with two misses by Michael Finley that would have given San Antonio the lead.
"If you miss six free throws in a row down the stretch, it's probably going to affect a tight game," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We wished we would have made free throws. They made mistakes; we made mistakes. That's what the game is made of."
Garnett, who had not played since Feb. 19, entered the game averaging 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds this season. Rivers said he wanted to gradually ease Garnett back into the lineup. He compared the game to training camp for Garnett while the rest of the Celtics fought to maintain playoff positioning in the East.
Boston went 7-6 over the past month without Garnett, a mediocre run that helped Cleveland build a 4½-game lead for the best record in the East entering Friday's game.
The Celtics have 12 games left before the playoffs, including final meetings at Cleveland and Orlando, which is just a game behind the Celtics for the No. 2 seed.
Rivers, coaching his first game since being fined $25,000 this week for criticizing a referee following a loss to Chicago, said the Celtics have precious time remaining to fully get Garnett back into the rotation.
Putting Garnett back in now, essentially, was one of Boston's few options.
"We basically sat around and counted all the practice days before playoffs. It's not a lot of them," Rivers said. "And this is a solution."
The Celtics sure could have used Garnett down the stretch.
Boston led by five in the third quarter before Parker, picking off a bad pass from Perkins, took Rondo 1-on-1 at the other end and glided past him to tie the game at 61. Earlier in the quarter, Perkins got a technical foul for shoving Matt Bonner underneath after Garnett's first basket.
Boston took a 64-63 lead into the fourth, and Spurs rookie George Hill tied it at 66 on a layup after a nifty bounce pass from Roger Mason. Two free throws by Drew Gooden on the next possession gave the Spurs their first lead since early in the third.
Rondo's jumper tied it at 70 with just under six minutes left, and the Celtics and Spurs went back-and-forth the rest of the way before Perkins' jumper proved to be decisive.
"Big win for us," Rivers said.
- Spurs G Manu Ginobili returned to practice this week for the first time since the All-Star break. Ginobili has missed 17 consecutive games with a right ankle injury, but might finally be getting ready to return. "The progression has been steady. Hopefully in the next week or so we'll see him," Popovich said.
- The Celtics sent rookie guard J.R. Giddens back to the NBA Development League on Friday. It's the third time Boston has sent their first-round pick to the D-League this season.