ORLANDO, Fla. — The Boston Celtics left the floor with the smallest of grins, hands raised in triumph, leaving the Orlando Magic’s fans listening to a somber song by Elvis.
Not for the guys in green.
Rajon Rondo had 17 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists, and Boston bullied the Magic with strong defense in an 86-77 victory Friday.
“We are a physical team,” Rondo said. “We try to get stops the right way.”
Ray Allen added 18 points and Tony Allen scored 16 in place of the injured Paul Pierce for the Celtics, who rolled to their 14th win in the last 15 games. Pierce is out with a right knee infection and could miss two weeks.
They looked fine without him.
The only big blow for the Celtics came in the final minutes, when Kevin Garnett jumped to block a shot by Vince Carter, landing awkwardly and tumbling to the ground. He hobbled back to the bench holding his back and didn’t return.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Garnett mostly had a bruise on his head. Garnett said he was fine.
“If he grew some hair, it wouldn’t hurt so much,” Rivers joked.
Carter finished with 27 points, and Rashard Lewis had 19 points for the Magic. Orlando had no answer to Boston’s relentless pressure, which held Dwight Howard to five points and Orlando to a season low in points.
Even with all that, the Magic had a chance.
Lewis’ 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining — the same play Garnett went down — cut Boston’s lead to 78-75. Carter made the pass to avoid Garnett on the play, a familiar theme throughout.
“I know he was the guy I saw flying at me,” Carter said. “It was a lot of green in there, put it that way.”
Ray Allen then connected with a jumper and made a pair of free throws to seal the win, perhaps cementing the Celtics (23-5) as the top contenders to dethrone the defending Eastern Conference champions.
The teams have each won a game on the other’s court this season and have two games left against each other.
“This was definitely a benchmark game for us because we have been talking about this game for a long time,” Ray Allen said. “We did what we had to do and took care of the game.”
This was exactly the game the Celtics wanted.
They beat and bruised the Magic’s front line, smothering Howard so much he only had one shot attempt in the opening quarter — a missed tip in the last minute — and struggled to get free until the final buzzer. The Celtics didn’t double-team the Magic’s center like so many teams do, mostly because they didn’t have to.
They had plenty of big bodies.
“You’ve got to play him physical. You watch other teams around the league, they pretty much let him set up shop,” Boston center Kendrick Perkins said. “You’ve just got to go in and be prepared to go to war. You’ve got to fight him first, hit him first.
“He likes to be physical, but he doesn’t like anyone to be physical with him.”
The Celtics’ formula worked to perfection.
Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Co. limited Howard’s touches and were able to close out fast on Orlando’s potent shooters. The physical play turned things into the kind of foul-filled defensive game where Boston flourishes.
“It wasn’t the prettiest ball,” Rivers said. “It was ugly ball. I don’t necessarily think it was bad basketball, but two teams playing extremely hard and great defense.”
It was Boston basketball.
The Celtics held Orlando (22-8) to 28 points in the first half, tying a franchise low. They closed the quarter on an 18-2 run to take an 11-point lead, smiling on their way to the locker room as some fans showered the home team with boos.
“We have not been able to establish him in the post against them, and it’s frustrating because we should be able to,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I have to find an answer to that. I’m not frustrated with Dwight, I’m frustrated with myself. But obviously, not a lot of offensive efficiency there.”
This was Boston’s style.
All the rough and tough play had emotions high, too much so for the Magic. There were three technical fouls in the game, with Howard and Van Gundy getting called on consecutive plays in the third quarter. Garnett was also called for a technical foul after elbowing Howard.
Even Celtics reserve Brian Scalabrine got in the action, tossing Carter into the scorer’s table in the third quarter just as he caught the ball sprinting up court. There were 47 personal fouls in the game.
“We just got to run, keep them moving,” Howard said. “When they get hunkered down on defense, they’re really good.”
NOTES: Celtics coach Doc Rivers lives in the Orlando area and was able to spend Christmas morning with his family. Rivers even joked he already had breakfast twice before the game began — one at the arena, one at home. … Celtics F Glen Davis was activated for the first time since he injured his right thumb before the season.