BOSTON (AP) — Paul Pierce scored 27 points, Kevin Garnett had 20 and the Boston Celtics clinched a playoff berth with a 113-99 win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night.
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 for their fifth win in six games. Rajon Rondo had a triple-double with 11 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds.
Carmelo Anthony led Denver with 32 points and J.R. Smith added 21.
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.
Denver coach George Karl missed his fourth straight game and ninth overall since announcing that he had been diagnosed with cancer. The Nuggets are 5-4 under acting head coach Adrian Dantley while Karl undergoes treatment for throat and neck cancer. Karl also was hospitalized this week with blood clots in his lungs and a leg, according to a blog by his girlfriend, Kim Van Deraa.
Denver is just 17-19 on the road with four games left on the road trip.
The Celtics’ strong inside presence and attacking style were just two positive signs as they gear up for the playoffs. The win was their fourth straight at home, where they’re just 22-12, and began a season-long six-game homestand in 12 days, culminating with a Sunday afternoon meeting with the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 4.
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.
They came out strong in 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 straight 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.
Notes: 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 third 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.