BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics are back in the playoffs. They want to be playing their best when those games start.
They were very good on Wednesday night.
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It was the Celtics' fifth victory in six games and began a six-game stretch at home, where they're only 22-12, worse than their 24-13 road record.
"We have been able to get the job done on the road, but this is where we eat. This is where we set our table," Pierce said. "Hopefully, we can just start playing well in this building and gather some momentum going into the playoffs."
Pierce, who missed 10 games with knee, foot and thumb problems, and Garnett, sidelined for 10 with a hyperextended right knee, have been healthy for a while. Pierce scored only five points in a 114-105 loss in Denver on Feb. 21 while playing with a sore thumb.
"The Paul Pierce you saw out in Denver wasn't the Paul Pierce that usually shows up to play," he said. "Right now I'm as healthy as I've been all year and this is our time to start playing well."
The Celtics remained tied with Atlanta for third place in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm just really focused on getting to the ... middle of April and being at our best" for the playoffs, Boston coach Doc Rivers said.
The Celtics dominated inside and the Nuggets, one day after losing to the Knicks in New York, slipped a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks and into a third-place tie with Utah in the Western Conference with their third consecutive loss.
Boston led by 21 points twice in the third quarter before Denver cut the lead to 87-80 going into the fourth. But the Celtics stayed ahead by seven to 16 the rest of the way.
Rondo had 11 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds.
The Celtics played aggressively from the start, beginning with Garnett's dunk on an alley-oop pass from Kendrick Perkins for the first basket of the game. Capitalizing on the absence of defensive star Kenyon Martin, who missed his 11th consecutive game with left knee tendinitis, Boston scored 58 points in the paint.
"We've been talking about it the last four or five games," Denver acting head coach Adrian Dantley said. "They got points in the paint. They outhustled us on the boards."
Denver coach George Karl missed his ninth game since announcing that he had been diagnosed with cancer. The Nuggets are 5-4 in that span. Karl has had treatment for throat and neck cancer and was hospitalized this week with blood clots in his lungs and a leg, according to a blog by his girlfriend, Kim Van Deraa.
"It's tough playing without your head coach and the guy [Martin] that has the biggest presence and the biggest voice on the team," Chauncey Billups said. "There is nobody stressing on it. We just have to man up and get ourselves through it."
Denver is only 17-19 on the road with four games left on the current trip.
The Celtics' strong inside presence and attacking style were just two positive signs. The victory was their fourth straight at home, where they began a season-long six-game homestand in 12 days, culminating with a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 4.
"Whether it's home or away, I think it's time to get momentum," Rondo said.
Boston has reached the playoffs in all three seasons since Garnett and Ray Allen joined Pierce to form the Big Three. It won its 17th NBA title in 2008 and was eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Orlando Magic in 2009.
The Celtics led 30-27 after the first quarter in which Pierce outscored Anthony 14-11 and stretched that to 61-51 at halftime as seldom-used guard Tony Allen had 10 points and helped hold Anthony to three in the second quarter.
"I thought Tony Allen, honestly, was the star of the game," Rivers said. "He turned the game around for us with his energy, with his defense."
The Celtics began the third quarter with a 18-7 run that gave them a 79-58 lead. But the Nuggets scrambled back, starting with a three-point play by Anthony. Trailing 85-69, they scored eight consecutive points, six by Anthony.
Michael Finley stopped the surge with a basket that made it 87-77, before Smith hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
- Utah beat Toronto to tie Denver for third in the West.
- The Nuggets' magic number to clinch a playoff berth remained at three.
- Ray Allen scored 16 points and moved ahead of David Robinson into 30th place in career points with 20,794. Robinson scored 20,790.
- The Nuggets failed to score 100 points for the fourth time in five games after entering the game averaging 107.5, third in the NBA.