Not even a late comeback by one of the NBA's best teams could keep Boston from beating the Los Angeles Clippers 106-104 on Sunday and improve to 4-0 since a knee injury ended their star point guard's season.
"A lot of people say that we don't have a chance to go to the playoffs, we can't do this, we can't do that," starting guard Avery Bradley said. "We know we have each other and we're going to go out there and fight for each other, no matter what, every single night."
The Clippers played without their own brilliant point guard. Chris Paul missed his seventh straight game with a bruised right knee cap.
But they cut a 98-83 deficit to 103-101 on a 3-pointer by Eric Bledsoe with 56 seconds remaining. Then Bradley drew an offensive foul on Los Angeles' Jamal Crawford with 26 seconds to go.
Paul Pierce then held on to the ball -- and was surprised that the Clippers didn't foul him -- before making a 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left to clinch the win and finish with a team-high 22 points.
"If we get a stop there (with) three or four seconds to go, we've got plenty of time," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said of his decision not to foul. "If I was going to do it, I would have fouled Courtney Lee early right when he got the ball."
But he didn't want to foul Pierce, an accurate shooter down the stretch whether from the field or the free throw line.
"Any time the game's on the line, whether he missed 15 in a row, we know the last one's good," Celtics guard Jason Terry said.
The teams played without the point guards voted starters in the All-Star game in Houston on Feb. 17. Rondo has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With Paul sidelined, the Clippers have lost five of seven games, including their biggest setback and lowest scoring game of the season, 98-73 at Toronto on Friday night.
"We're just a little out of rhythm," Los Angeles forward Matt Barnes said. "Guys are just playing a little out of position, but that's no excuse."
The Celtics also are missing rookie forward Jared Sullinger after he had season-ending back surgery Friday.
But they moved within 1 1-2 games of the Milwaukee Bucks for seventh place in the East and 3 1-2 ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers for the final playoff spot in the conference.
Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa scored 14 points each for the Celtics and led a 52-point contribution from the bench. The Clippers were led by Bledsoe, replacing Paul, and Crawford, who made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, with 23 points each. Blake Griffin had 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Without Rondo, the Celtics were encouraged by coach Doc Rivers to take the open shot or move the ball quickly when they don't have it. That prevents opposing defenses from double teaming the ball handler.
"We beat a heck of a team and I'm very happy with that," Rivers said, "but in my mind we can be better, much better, than we were today."
The first half was one of the best of the season for the Celtics, and they headed to the locker room with a 59-40 lead.
"We're playing good in spurts right now," Pierce said. "We got stagnant at times. We didn't defend at a high level in the second half. ... A win's a win, but we made it a lot more difficult than we thought it should have been."
Trailing 98-83, the Clippers began a 15-3 run with Griffin's free with 9:39 to play. Crawford's layup made it 101-98 with 3:18 remaining.
Terry then put Boston up by five when he beat the 24-second buzzer with a jumper with 1:09 left before Bledsoe made his 3-pointer.
Then Bradley took the charge.
"Jamal's a great player," he said. "I just tried to make it as hard as possible on him."
And Pierce hit his big 3-pointer.
"They were the aggressors and that's what we do to teams when we are the most successful," Crawford said. "They did that tonight."
The Celtics tied their season highs of 33 points after one quarter and 59 after two. And they did it with balanced offense, as 10 players scored between three and nine points.
They had 14 assists on their 20 baskets and just five turnovers in the half. On defense, they held the Clippers to 10 points on 4-for-18 shooting in the second quarter and forced 15 turnovers in the half.
The Clippers didn't score in the second quarter until Lamar Odom made an 11-foot turnaround 4:11 into the period, cutting Boston's lead to 39-32. Bledsoe made their second field goal more than two minutes later.