for this game

Rondo leads Celtics over slumping Magic

Dec 24, 2007 - 4:00 AM By Mike Salk PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer

BOSTON (Ticker) -- The Boston Celtics have relied on their "Big Three" all season, but it was the smallest guy on their roster who stepped up Sunday to provide them their best start since the 1990-91 season.

Point guard Rajon Rondo scored a season-high 23 points and knocked down his first 3-pointers of the season as the Celtics posted a 103-91 victory over the sliding Orlando Magic.

"I was just trying to be aggressive," said Rondo, who has worked to quiet critics that believed he would be a weak link on a contending team. "The more I hit those shots, the more it opens up the game for KG (Kevin Garnett) and the other guys."

Garnett was certainly free to operate in this one as he had 21 points and 12 rebounds and Paul Pierce added 24 points for the Celtics (22-3), who won their first eight games of the season before Orlando handed Boston its first loss of the season, 104-102, on November 18.

"I tried to bring an abundance of energy," admitted Garnett who seemingly let that first loss fester in the back of his mind. "I wasn't happy with the way we played down there. I knew that we could play a lot better. I wanted to prove that in the way we played, not in the conversation or talk (beforehand)."

With Rondo on the bench resting in the second quarter, the Magic were able to turn a 10-point deficit into a one-point lead. But the second year point guard stabilized the Celtics' offense and sparked a 33-11 run bridging the second and third quarters to take a 20-point lead with the help of some deadly outside shooting.

The Celtics closed the first half on a 10-1 run, getting six points from Pierce and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Rondo over Maurice Evans to take a 49-42 lead at intermission.

According to Pierce, closing out quarters has been a point of emphasis for his team and something they discussed in the timeout that preceded the run.

"We think it's important, especially after every quarter, to finish on a strong note," Pierce said. "We took that into half time and into the third quarter. It really carried over."

Rondo, who entered the game 0-for-3 all-season from the arc, wasn't done. He hit a trifecta from the left corner with 6 1/2 minutes left in the third period that provided a 60-49 edge and sparked a Celtics' 3-point barrage.

"I thought I shot well warming up before the game," offered Rondo. "But it all depends on the shots they give me and whether I make him."

Still, he wasn't shocked to see some open looks in this one. After Orlando played off of him in their previous meeting and he scored 18 points, he expected more of the same.

"I knew I had to focus on getting to my spots on the floor short corners and elbow shots. When I'm open from there, I just take what they give me."

As far as Rivers is concerned, the long-distance bombs are just a bonus.

"I'm more proud of the mid-range (jumpers) that he's making," gushed the coach. "They're trying to help off him every night. And I tell him, 'You're going to get open shots every night' and the more he makes them, the more it's going to help."

With the crowd on its feet, Garnett blocked Rashard Lewis' shot under the basket to force a 24-second violation. Garnett then drew a double team and kicked to Pierce, who swished a straightaway trey.

Pierce drained another 3-pointer with 4:39 left, then Rondo penetrated and found Ray Allen, who swished a 3-pointer from the right corner with four minutes left. Allen knocked down another shot from the arc 39 ticks later to push the bulge to 72-52.

Rondo finished 8-of-10 from the floor, including 2-of-2 from the arc, and Allen finished with 22 points, giving the Celtics four 20-point scorers for the first time since 1999.

Two days after Magic coach Stan Van Gundy questioned his team's toughness after a loss to Utah, it responded by playing a more physical game and forcing its way to the line. The Magic attempted 17 foul shots in the first half and finished with 25.

"I thought we competed hard," said Van Gundy, who seemed to be satisfied with the effort, if not the results. "I think tonight was more about them than us. If you look, we didn't give up many points in the paint, we didn't give up second-chance points, we didn't send them to the free-throw line an abnormal number of times."

Indeed, Orlando showed some heart, cutting the 20-point deficit to nine on Dwight Howard's dunk with 7:54 left before dropping its seventh game in its last nine.

Still, the team with the best road record in the league was badly outplayed by the Celtics. Howard scored most of his 25 points after the game was decided, and he struggled to get clean looks against either Garnett or Kendrick Perkins. Though he mustered a few dunks, Howard was a disappointing 5-of-16 from the foul line.

"I was frustrated with myself," said a very quiet Howard. "I couldn't hit any free throws and I let that slow me down."

Orlando has now dropped seven of its last nine and leads the Southeast Division by just 2 1/2 games over Atlanta.

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