BOSTON — Happy to get the victory, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was well aware his team had just survived after blowing most of a 19-point second-half lead.
“We stopped playing,” Rivers said Sunday after the Celtics, winning their fourth straight game since losing Rajon Rondo to a season-ending knee injury, escaped with a 106-104 win over the charging Los Angeles Clippers.
“Back to back games and I told our guys that. I hate as a coach when you’re telling them that and they’re all agreeing with you after the game, but we still did it,” Rivers said. “That’s back to back games where we were playing REALLY good basketball (and then stopped).
“We won the game, we beat a heck of a team and I’m very happy with that. But in my mind we can be better, much better, than we were today.”
The schedule said this was supposed to be a matchup of top guards, but Rondo is gone with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the Clippers’ Chris Paul, who last year turned down a chance to move from New Orleans to Boston in a deal for Rondo, missed his seventh straight game with a knee injury.
This game was a blowout as late in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics, who have also lost rookie Jared Sullinger for the season to back surgery, led by 19 in the third quarter and by 15 with 9:49 remaining. But the Clippers, behind guards Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford, roared back late.
A 7-0 run grew to 15-3 and the lead was down to three with 3:18 left, but Crawford committed a huge turnover with 2:14 left (and another one later). Jason Terry hit a jumper with 1:09 left to end a Boston field goal drought that lasted 8:40, giving Boston a five-point lead. But a Bledsoe 3-pointer got it down to two.
The Clippers then had a chance to tie or go ahead, but Crawford was nailed for an offensive foul with 26.6 seconds remaining. Los Angeles coach Vinny Del Negro, with only a 2.6-second differential between the game and 24-second clocks, decided not to foul, and Paul Pierce hit a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left and it was over. Crawford’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was meaningless.
“It was right on the (time) number and we’ve done it both ways,” Del Negro said. “… We went back and forth with it, we just felt we could get it done.”
Pierce’s trey made the Celtics 11-for-18 from 3-point range in the game, with Pierce 4-for-6 while making his last four. He had been 7-for-42 on 3-pointers in the previous 10 games.
“A big-time shot by a big-time player,” said the Clippers’ Matt Barnes, who was on Pierce on the play. “I think that’s the only three they hit the entire quarter. That’s what big-time players do.”
Pierce, who has inherited much of the ballhandling with Rondo gone, scored 22 points to lead five Celtics in double figures, but had six turnovers. Terry had 13 points and six assists off the bench, with the Boston bench scoring a season-high 52 points on 17-for-26 shooting, including 6-for-9 from 3-point range.
“That’s something that we said that we’re capable of doing before the season, and now we’re starting to see why we said that,” said Terry, who is getting the ball more in the Rondo-less rapid offense.
Bledsoe had 23 points and 10 assists, Blake Griffin 20 points and 11 rebounds and Crawford 23 points and six assists off the bench. But Crawford had six of the Clippers’ 20 turnovers as they lost for the sixth time in the last eight games. Caron Butler added 18 points.
Crawford scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics turned the ball over seven times. Boston had one basket in an 8:39 stretch as the Clippers climbed back in.
“You tip your hat to them, but if we had come in with the same effort you had in the second half, I think it would have been a different outcome,” said Crawford.
The Clippers were hit with two flagrant-1 fouls during the game but both were overturned on review. Kevin Garnett, the victim of the second hit that was reversed, got a technical foul after a get-together with Griffin. As Garnett (12 points, five rebounds) went to the bench with five fouls, he exchanged words Barnes, who had hit him at the other end.
NOTES: The Clippers had 10 points and nine turnovers in the second quarter. … The Sporting News tweeted during the game that a source reported the Clippers are trying to trade for Garnett, reportedly offering Butler and Bledsoe. … With the Clippers already missing guards Paul and Chauncey Billups (knee), Crawford, who suffered a nasal fracture Friday night, was able to play wearing a mask. He shed the mask in the second quarter. … Del Negro visited his hometown of Springfield, Mass., about two hours from Boston, Saturday. He left more than 30 tickets for family and friends Sunday. … Rivers picked the 49ers, in a close Super Bowl win. “I think they are the better team, but clearly I don’t know enough about football. That’s why I’m here,” he said. … The Clippers, in the second game of a seven-game road trip while the Grammy Awards take over the Staples Center, are at Washington Monday night, while the Celtics visit Toronto Wednesday before hosting the Lakers Thursday night. … Rehabbing oft-injured big man Greg Oden (both knees) visited with the Celtics Saturday. “We wanted to talk to Greg to see where he is physically,” GM Danny Ainge told the Boston Herald. “We’re just finding out as much as we can and letting Greg know what we have here. He’s not ready to play now, but he’s someone who’s very interesting.” Miami and Cleveland are also said to be in the mix for Oden, who last played Dec. 5, 2009.