The Celtics got a spark from newcomer Jameer Nelson, who nearly willed Boston back from what seemed like an insurmountable deficit against one of his former teams.
Boston clawed within three (90-87) with 2:34 to play. The Magic called their final timeout and Tobias Harris hit a fadeaway jumper that stopped the bleeding and helped Orlando hang on.
The Celtics trailed by as much as 27 early in the fourth quarter but former Magic players Nelson and Brandon Bass helped activate the rally. Boston was down 18 (90-72) with 7:24 to go, but scored the game's next 15 points, culminating with a Kelly Olynyk 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game.
Boston got within three again with 22 seconds to play, but Orlando did enough to hang on.
Nelson finished with 9 points, 11 assists and 4 rebounds over 29:45 while starting at point guard. Center Tyler Zeller had another big night (22 points, 10 rebounds) while guard Avery Bradley added 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting.
• First-quarter woes: The Celtics finished the first half shooting just 9.1 percent (2 of 22) and were staring at a 26-9 deficit after the first 12 minutes. Even with the fourth-quarter surge, Boston shot just 38.8 percent (33 of 85).
• Sully benched: Jared Sullinger did not play in the second half and was replaced by Olynyk at the start of the third quarter. Sullinger missed all five shots he took while going scoreless with two rebounds over only 9 minutes, 10 seconds of playing time.
• Loose balls: Celtics coach Brad Stevens went 11 deep with his rotation. Gerald Wallace was a healthy DNP. ... Recently acquired Jae Crowder played 10:35, but was on the court for much of the rally. He was a team-best plus-18 in plus/minus. ... Brandan Wright had five points on 2-of-4 shooting over 12:42. ... The Celtics shot 29 free throws with Zeller going 10-for-10 at the stripe. ... The game had no lead changes as the Magic led from start to finish.
• What it means: Boston falls to 10-16, while Orlando moves to 11-20. ... The Celtics get a little Christmas rest before hosting the Brooklyn Nets in a Friday matinee at TD Garden.