MILWAUKEE -- With only nine players dressed, the Boston Celtics had no choice but to rely on their Big Three in the clutch.
Paul Pierce scored 23 points, Kevin Garnett added 14 points and 11 rebounds, and Ray Allen hit the go-ahead jumper as the Celtics beat the Milwaukee Bucks 89-83 on Sunday night for their fifth straight win.
"We got a nice little rhythm, truthfully. It really starts with our core group," Pierce said. "At the end of the day we're finding a way to win."
The Celtics (46-15) held Milwaukee without a field goal in the final 3½ minutes, proving they have no problem closing out games even with just nine players dressed. Boston remained three games up on Chicago atop the Eastern Conference and four games up over Miami with the Heat struggling to finish games.
"We made plays at the end of the game, more defensive than offensive," Garnett said. "We had to get stops and make plays and we made them."
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With the game tied at 82, Boston's three stars came through. Allen hit a 17-foot jumper, Garnett made an 11-foot fadeaway jumper while being heavily defended and Pierce converted a three-point play with 18 seconds left to seal it. Garnett also grabbed a big rebound and made a key block late.
"We're definitely not where we want to be, but we're grinding it out," Pierce said.
Brandon Jennings scored 23 points for the similarly short-handed Bucks, who have lost 12 of the last 16.
John Salmons hit a jumper and Carlos Delfino added a 28-footer to tie the game at 82-all with 3:36 left. But Allen answered with his jumper and the Celtics dug in on defense, forcing turnovers on two consecutive possessions.
Jennings, who finished 8 of 19 from the field, missed an open shot on the baseline with 56 seconds left and Garnett grabbed the rebound before making his contested shot that gave the Celtics an 86-82 lead.
Salmons hit a free throw that made it 86-83 with 38 seconds left after Allen was called for a foul before the ball was put in play and the Bucks retained possession. But Garnett swatted away Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's layup attempt and pumped his right arm as Rajon Rondo grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
"We knew the plays they were running," Garnett said. "I let him go by and blocked it. We got the rebound and the game was pretty much over after that."
On the ensuing inbounds play, Rondo found Pierce streaking to the basket. Pierce made an easy layup after a bad foul by Keyon Dooling and his free throw was the final margin.
"The whole game, we felt like we hung in there, we did a good job of hanging in there with them, but I feel like we shot ourselves in the foot, turning the ball over and not executing when we needed to at a crucial moment of the game," Mbah a Moute said. "That really cost us."
Mbah a Moute returned from missing two games with an illness to finish with a season-high 19 points and Salmons had 11 for the Bucks, who were missing Andrew Bogut (strained left side), Ersan Ilyasova (concussion) and Drew Gooden (left foot). Salmons just stared at the floor in the locker room with his knees iced, the look of frustration obvious after Milwaukee (23-38) reached the postseason last year and were expected to be at least a playoff contender.
Two nights after Milwaukee was outscored 31-15 by Phoenix in the third quarter on the way to a double-digit loss, it happened again with the Celtics. A 1-for-10 stretch by the lowest-scoring, worst-shooting team in the NBA allowed Boston to turn a six-point deficit into a 69-65 lead heading into the fourth.
"I kind of take the blame for the loss, missing the jump shot and a couple of turnovers down the stretch," Jennings said.
Boston has a slew of injury problems of its own, leaving Jermaine O'Neal (left knee), Shaquille O'Neal (right heel), Delonte West (right ankle), Glen Davis (left knee) and Von Wafer (right calf) at home for its only stop in Milwaukee.
So far, nothing has stopped Boston's championship core from keeping up its torrid pace.
"I told our guys before the game, 'We have two teams with a hundred injuries. They have starters out. We have our entire bench out.' It was going to be a funky game and someone was going to have to win it. Let it be us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We're just doing it, you know? We're just hanging in and winning games."
- Shaquille O'Neal turned 39 on Sunday. He hasn't played since Feb. 1.
- Davis missed his second game since straining the patella tendon on a dunk in a win over Phoenix.