BOSTON — Rajon Rondo’s miserable March is over.
The Celtics point guard had 16 points and 13 assists to lead Boston to a 99-82 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night and help the defending conference champions reclaim the second-best playoff position in the East.
“He’s getting himself ready,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “You can see what they’re all doing, they’re sharpening their tools. … They know where they’re at.”
With the win, the Celtics and Heat were tied at 54-23 with four games left in the regular season — including one head-to-head matchup in Miami on Sunday. The Celtics would win the tiebreaker because they beat Miami in their first three meetings this season.
“We want all these games,” said Kevin Garnett, who scored 14 points. “Playoffs is like the main course. This will definitely be an appetizer.”
Reserve Evan Turner scored 21 — two points short of his career high — for the Sixers, who clinched a playoff berth on Friday but could still finish anywhere from fifth to seventh in the East. They ended the night in sixth, four games behind the Atlanta Hawks and one-half game ahead of the New York Knicks.
“When we play a team like this, I told our guys we want to keep growing every single game,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “That’s why coming down this stretch these games give us a blueprint on what we have to do to beat these teams.”
Rondo started the season on a torrid passing pace, averaging 15 assists over Boston’s first 10 games — including a season-high 24 in the third game of the year. He failed to reach 10 assists only 11 times heading into March, not counting injuries; he matched that in the past month alone — including eight games in a row.
From March 6 to March 27, when he sat out to rest a strained right pinky, Rondo also shot 34 percent from the field, averaged seven points and 7.4 assists, and the Celtics went 5-6.
But Rondo is back on track, reaching double digits in assists or rebounds in four straight games after failing to do so a dozen times in the 14 games before that.
“I wouldn’t say I’m feeling 100 percent, but I’m doing OK,” Rondo said. “Tonight was a good test for us. That might be a first-round (opponent) and we did a good job of making a little statement that it’s going to be hard to beat us in a seven-game series.”
Rondo added four rebounds, shot 6 for 14 from the floor and even made all four of his free throw attempts on Tuesday. Paul Pierce scored 18 points, Kevin Garnett had 14 and Ray Allen had 13 for Boston, which is 8-8 in the past month.
“Rondo is once again leading their team,” Collins said. “When they play like that, it should make Doc smile because they’re one of the best teams in the league.
Nenad Krstic scored eight points in 18 minutes after missing two games with a bruised right knee, and Jermaine O’Neal had nine points in 12 minutes as the Celtics try to find big men to fill in for Shaquille O’Neal. The 15-time All-Star returned on Sunday after missing 27 games but lasted just 5 minutes, 29 seconds before leaving the game with a strained right calf muscle.
The Celtics do not have a timetable for his return, Rivers said, and getting Krstic and O’Neal healthy would be crucial if they’re going to have a chance to return to the NBA finals.
Philadelphia led 49-47 with just over a minute left in the half before the Celtics scored seven of the last eight points heading into the break. Boston then scored the first nine points of the third quarter to complete a 16-1 run and turn a two-point deficit into a 63-50 lead.
Notes: The Sixers signed PG Antonio Daniels from the Texas Legends of the NBA Development League to replace Lou Williams, who strained his right hamstring on Sunday. Daniels has played 12 NBA seasons for Vancouver, San Antonio, Portland, Seattle, Washington and most recently New Orleans in 2008-09. … Angel Martinez, 21, of Worcester, hit a half-court shot at halftime to win $25,000. .. . The Sixers missed their first nine shots in the third quarter. … Jeff Green blocked Marreese Speights in the closing seconds, bringing the crowd to its feet.