By A. Sherrod Blakely
BOSTON With their defensive anchor back on the floor, the Boston Celtics closed out the Orlando Magic with - you guessed it - great defense.
And it was Kevin Garnett leading the late-game defensive surge, as the C's held on for a 109-106 win over the Magic Monday night.
Garnett finished with 19 points and 8 rebounds, but it was his steal and subsequent pass upcourt to Ray Allen who was immediately fouled, that sealed the Celtics victory.
Coach Doc Rivers said he didn't know what to expect from Garnett, who returned to action after missing the previous nine games with a muscle strain in his lower right leg.
"I knew he'd play with energy," Rivers said. "You could see that."
After the play, Garnett gave a stare into the jubilant crowd, the kind of look that the Garden faithful ate up entirely.
He was back.
He was active.
He was Kevin Garnett.
"It felt good," Garnett said of being back on the floor for the first time since suffering the injury at Detroit on Dec. 29. "I've been doing a lot of things to get back here and get strong, and I'm glad I was able to come out here and help my team out."
Garnett's late-game heroics were truly needed. Monday's matchup not being all that different than the Christmas Day game, as the teams staged a back-and-fourth battle that wasn't ultimately decided until the game's final moments.
Ray Allen and Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu exchanged one big shot for another in the game's final minutes.
And the officials, who were calling things relatively close most of the game, began to uh, look the other way at times down the stretch. That seemed to benefit the C's, who had several players in foul trouble.
After the loss, the Magic weren't looking to make any excuses.
There were several factors that contributed to their loss, but none seemed to stick out more than the Celtics' impressive shooting.
Boston shot 60 percent from the floor, compared to 45.9 percent by the Magic.
Even with the C's shooting so well, the game was relatively close most of the night.
"I don't know if it's a good thing or bad thing to be in a game that close where they shot 60 percent," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. "We're going to have to be better defensively then that. On the positive side, they had to shoot 60 percent to win a very close game. So I don't know there was some good things, but our defense has to change or we can't play at this level."
Rivers wasn't all that pleased with his team's play defensively for most of the game.
"I'm sure Coach Van Gundy is saying the same thing - we both prepared for this to be a defensive game," Rivers said. "And for three quarters, no one has heard that. The last three minutes, we turned back to who we are. We were a defensive team and became that, and that's why we won the game."
After Orlando got three cracks at taking the lead, the Celtics grabbed the rebound and called a time-out with 1:15 to play and the score tied at 102-102.
Out of the time-out, the Celtics got a pair of free throws from the ''new guy'' -- Garnett.
Garnett's two free throws gave the C's a 104-102 lead with 1:05 to play.
Orlando continued to battle, but the Celtics would never trail again.
The C's set the tone with an impressive start, which was one of the Magic's biggest concerns coming into the game.
"Getting off to a good start is big for us," Orlando forward Brandon Bass told CSNNE.com. "Especially on the road."
Things didn't quite work out the way Bass wanted, as the C's opened with a 15-6 before Van Gundy had seen enough and called a time-out.
A key to Boston's quick start was the play of Shaquille O'Neal.
After scoring just two points in an injury-plagued 13 minutes on Christmas against Orlando, O'Neal had 12 points and 2 blocked shots on Monday.
Boston also got a strong game from Glen Davis, who had 15 points as he reprised his usual role as an energy guy off the Celtics bench.
"Baby Davis back in his spot was great," Rivers said. "In a difficult spot, because playing Dwight Howard is never easy."
But the C's showed that even with Howard roaming around the basket, getting points in the paint is essential to beating the Magic.
Boston had 52 points in the paint compared to just 26 for Orlando in a game that had the look and feel of a playoff matchup.
"For both teams, you'll take as many as you can get," Rivers said. "It's always nice to have them. It is one of only 82 games, but the meaning of them - they don't mean a lot come playoff time because guys are coming back from injuries, back-to-backs - but they're just fun for the players. You find out a lot about your guys because of the execution and stuff like that."