BOSTON — Paul Pierce had 29 points and a career-high 14 assists and the Boston Celtics clinched at least a tie for the Atlantic Division title as they held off a late charge by the Orlando Magic for a 102-98 win Wednesday night.
Boston (37-26) has a 3 1-2-game lead over New York (33-29). The Celtics have three games left and the Knicks, who beat the New Jersey Nets 104-95, have four.
Division winners are guaranteed to be seeded no worse than fourth in the conference and wouldn’t have to face Chicago or Miami in the first round.
The Magic cut a 91-78 lead to 91-90 on a layup by Jameer Nelson with 3:04 left. But they came no closer as Pierce and Ryan Anderson traded one free throw each. Pierce hit a short jumper in the lane, Brandon Bass caught Pierce’s shot that missed the rim and put in an easy layup and Kevin Garnett made a free throw for a 98-92 lead with 1:31 remaining.
But Orlando, sixth in the Eastern Conference at 36-26, fought back on baskets by J.J. Redick and Glen Davis, making it 98-96 with 31 seconds to play.
Pierce then hit a 20-footer as the 24-second clock was about to expire. After a basket by Nelson, Pierce sealed the victory with two free throws.
The Celtics played without their starting backcourt. Point guard Rajon Rondo, who has at least 10 assists in each of his last 23 games, had a sore lower back after landing hard on it in Tuesday night’s 118-110 loss at New York. Ray Allen missed his sixth straight game with a right ankle injury.
Avery Bradley started for Rondo and finished with 23 points. Bass added 21.
Davis, starting in place of Dwight Howard, led Orlando with 27 points. Nelson had 19 points and nine assists. Howard missed his sixth consecutive game because of a herniated disc.
One night after scoring 43 points, Pierce tied his career high with his 13th assist with 4:37 still left in the third quarter. He got his 14th with 9.5 seconds left in the period, feeding Bass for a jumper from the left corner.
Trailing 67-59, Orlando scored the next nine points to take its first lead since 6-5. It stayed on top 70-69 before the Celtics finished the third quarter with a 10-0 run that gave them a 79-70 lead. Bass scored six points and Pierce had four in that comeback.
The Celtics led 33-22 after one quarter, starting the game with nine baskets on their first 11 shots. But the Magic cut that to 55-51 at halftime with the help of their 3-point baskets — three by Nelson and one by J.J. Redick.
Notes: Pierce made 11 of 12 free throws one night after sinking 17 of 18. … The Celtics observed the 50th anniversary of the fifth of their 17 world championships with a halftime ceremony. Seven members of the team that beat the Los Angeles Lakers 110-107 in overtime to clinch the title were introduced — Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Tom Sanders, Jim Loscutoff and F rank Ramsey. …Davis, traded by Boston before the season for Bass, scored Orlando’s first three baskets. … Bradley led the Celtics in the first quarter with 11 points.