MINNEAPOLIS — Another enormous lead had slipped away for the Boston Celtics, and a loss potentially even more damaging than the last awaited.
That’s when Paul Pierce shed a whole game’s worth of poor shooting and Kevin Garnett followed with two of his go-to moves to finish off his former team.
Pierce had 23 points and seven rebounds, and the Celtics held on for an 85-82 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday night.
Garnett had 13 points, 13 rebounds and thousands of fans who turned out to cheer for the former face of the Timberwolves franchise.
One game after giving away a 13-point lead in a home loss to the stumbling Charlotte Bobcats, the Celtics led by 25 early in the second quarter, but trailed by two midway through the fourth before Pierce and Garnett lifted them to the victory.
“You’ve got to work to win them all,” Garnett said. “Tonight was no different.”
Michael Beasley had 28 points and 10 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who were missing All-Star Kevin Love for the third straight game because of a strained left groin.
Anthony Tolliver’s 3-pointer gave Minnesota an improbable 73-72 lead with just over 5 minutes to play, but Pierce came back with a 3-pointer and drive to take back the lead. KG added a turnaround from the baseline — the kind of move these fans saw him pull off for 12 seasons in Minnesota — and another soft jumper to hold off the Wolves.
“I feel like we showed a lot of character,” said Beasley, whose team has lost seven straight. “We could’ve just let them beat us by 60 points. But we fought back and gave ourselves a chance to win the last two minutes. Of course we wanted to win, but it didn’t turn out that way. A lot of guys played well, and we learned a lot from this game.”
The Celtics played without starting point guard Rajon Rondo, who strained his right pinky finger in practice on Saturday. Delonte West filled in well with eight points and five assists to help Boston avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season.
Darko Milicic had 15 points and nine rebounds, and Tolliver added 16 points and 15 boards for the Wolves, who trailed 38-13 in the second.
Coach Doc Rivers lit into his veteran unit after the Celtics loss to Charlotte on Friday night, calling them selfish pouters who are feeling sorry for themselves. It was an eye-opening assessment of a team that appeared to be hitting a wall with the postseason just a few weeks away.
Six losses in 10 games allowed the surging Bulls to jump into the top spot in the East, and the Celtics started the day 2½ games behind Chicago in the conference.
Rivers’ blistering appeared to wake the Celtics up early. Playing the kind of hard-nosed defense that has been their calling card for the Garnett years, they ripped off a 23-3 run in the first period to jump out to a huge lead.
“I thought we had a terrific first quarter,” Rivers said. “The ball was hopping and we kept the game simple. But then we started outthinking ourselves out there.”
Without Love in the lineup, the Wolves missed 22 of their first 27 shots and were getting pounded on the boards. Anthony Randolph, who had averaged 27.5 points and 13 rebounds in his two previous starts in Love’s place, played just 3½ minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.
Boston also scored the first six points of the second quarter for a 38-13 lead — much to the delight of scores of fans wearing Celtic green — and the nose-diving Wolves looked to be well on their way to another uncompetitive night at Target Center.
But the Wolves gradually started chipping away at the lead as the first half closed, cutting the deficit to 13 points at the break. Milicic’s hustle on the offensive glass jump-started them midway through the third period, starting a 22-6 run that tied the game at 62 just before the fourth quarter.
“I loved the way that they got themselves back in the ballgame,” Wolves coach Kurt Rambis said. “They fought, they scratched, they clawed, they gave themselves a chance to win, and I was really proud of how they were able to do that.”
Milicic’s layup with just over 8 minutes to play gave Minnesota its first lead of the game, 70-68, and the Wolves all of a sudden were outshooting the Celtics after their putrid start.
“That was resiliency I haven’t really seen all year,” Tolliver said.
But after Pierce stabilized the Celtics, Garnett added hit his two big jumpers, and forced a turnover by Milicic, and the Celtics breathed a huge sigh of relief.
“They made us sweat,” Pierce said. “We were up 20. I’m just happy we got the win.”
NOTES: Timberwolves backup C Nikola Pekovic missed the game with a hip injury. … A Wolves win would have tied the largest comeback in franchise history. They beat the Charlotte Hornets after trailing by 25 points on March 1, 1996. … Nenad Krstic had 11 points and six boards for Boston. … Rivers said he was unsure if Rondo would be able to play at Indiana on Monday night.