BOSTON -- If the Boston Celtics' stars are going to get any rest for what could be a long playoff run, they're going to have to earn it.
"I thought they hadn't played well enough to sit," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said pointedly about bringing his starters back into the game to hold off the New Jersey Nets down the stretch of a 106-104 victory on Wednesday night.
"So that's really why I played them, because I just didn't think they played well enough to sit. I thought they needed to play."
Rajon Rondo had 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists, coming back into the game for the final 5 minutes after New Jersey cut what seemed like a secure nine-point lead to five.
Unlike last year, when the Celtics clinched home-court advantage through the playoffs with six games left and rested the Big Three in the final weeks, they have already conceded the best record in the Eastern Conference to Cleveland. Boston's victory kept Cleveland from clinching -- for now- and it also helped the Celtics maintain a one-game lead over Orlando in the race for the No. 2 seed in the East.
"The more important thing is just building on something going into the playoffs," Pierce said. "We've won five in a row, but we want to be playing well."
Vince Carter had 33 points and 12 rebounds for the Nets, who were eliminated from the playoff race when Detroit beat New York earlier Wednesday night.
"To fall short is just disappointing," Carter said. "I think people were picking us to be last in the league -- in the East, period. We showed otherwise."
Boston led 106-99 with 1:11 left, seemingly coasting to the victory, before New Jersey scored the next five points -- the last five of the game, it turned out. Carter hit a 3-pointer, then picked off a pass from Rondo and went the rest of the way before hanging in the air for a one-handed layup with 50 seconds left that made it 106-104.
Pierce missed a 3-point attempt -- he was 0-for-3 from beyond the arc -- and the Nets brought it down with a chance to tie or win. But Carter missed a step-back 3-pointer with 8 seconds left, and after the Nets tipped out the rebound Devin Harris tried a long 3.
Ray Allen corralled the rebound and dribbled out the last few seconds.
"We trust our best players to make plays," Nets coach Lawrence Frank said. "We just continued to fight our tails off and that is what this group has done for really the majority of the year. We didn't quit; we're very, very resilient; we never hung our heads. I'm disappointed because we came up short."
Boston played its first game after four days off and its fifth straight game -- and 18th of 22 -- without forward Kevin Garnett, who is recovering from a strained right knee. Rivers said Garnett would travel with the team to Cleveland for Sunday's game but would not play.
"I thought we were a little rusty," said Pierce, who scored just 10 points to go with 12 from Allen. "If [Rondo's] able to score like that, we're going to be a tough team to beat. That takes so much pressure off me and Ray, especially with Kevin out."
New Jersey led 20-10 with 5 minutes left in the first quarter and 31-21 at the start of the second when the Boston scored 11 of the next 14 points. The Nets held a 45-44 lead late in the second quarter before Boston scored seven straight, including Ray Allen's 3-pointer, and went on to take a 56-47 lead.
New Jersey tied it in the third quarter and again in the fourth but never led.
Rivers is eyeing a possible Monday return at practice for Garnett. ... Boston F Brian Scalabrine was activated for the game, but did not play. ... Boston is 12-1 when Rondo scored at least 20 points. ... Ray Allen hit Tony Allen with an alley-oop for a reverse dunk with 1:57 left in the third to give Boston a 79-75 lead.
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