ORLANDO, Florida, (Reuters) – The Orlando Magic took a big step toward claiming the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, holding off the visiting Boston Celtics 84-82 on Wednesday.
All-Star center Dwight Howard dominated with 24 points and 21 rebounds as the Magic clinched the Southeast Division for the second straight season and pulled even in the standings with the Celtics.
Orlando (53-18) hold the edge over Boston (54-19) in the loss column as well as winning percentage with just 11 games remaining, giving them the inside track for home court advantage in a likely second-round matchup between the teams.
“It means a lot,” Howard told reporters, after tallying four blocks, including one on Paul Pierce with 3.8 seconds left. “We played hard from the beginning of the game and that’s what it will take from here if we want to be a championship team.
“Paul Pierce caught fire (late) but we kept pushing and came out with a good win.”
Pierce scored 19 of his game-high 26 points in the second half but missed a 3-pointer attempt as the final clock expired that failed to reach the rim.
The defending NBA champion Celtics rallied from a 15-point deficit in the second half and used a 9-2 run in the fourth quarter to trail just 83-82 with 1:27 left.
Ray Allen made a 3-pointer during the stretch and had 16 points.
Kevin Garnett, in his fourth game since missing 13 contests with a knee injury, played just 17 minutes and sat on the bench down the stretch as Boston coach Doc Rivers continued to be cautious with the All-Star forward’s return.
Orlando forward Rashard Lewis had six of his 21 points in the fourth and recorded four 3-pointers in his team’s fourth win in a row.
“Any time you gut out a win it just gives you more confidence and resolve,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We’ve had a lot of those (games) this year, yet people still continue to question the toughness of our team.”