BOSTON -- For the second time in two nights, the Boston Celtics played a team trying to knock them out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Both times, the aging former champions held onto their playoff position.
"I'm just glad we're back to .500," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday after Boston beat the Milwaukee Bucks 102-96 for its second straight win since entering the All-Star break on a five-game losing streak.
Rajon Rondo had 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to record his third triple-double of the season, and Kevin Garnett scored 25 points with 10 rebounds. The victory over the ninth-place Bucks left the Celtics tied with the New York Knicks for the last two playoff spots in the East.
It's a bit of a comedown for the franchise that won its NBA-record 17th title in 2008 and returned to the Finals two years later. But in this lockout-shortened season, Boston's best chance may be to eke into the playoffs well-rested and hope for an upset once it gets there.
"Hopefully we can get a good rhythm going here," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. "And just kind of catch our stride in the second half of the season."
Ersan Ilyasova had 25 points with 10 rebounds and Drew Gooden scored 23 for the Bucks, who are percentage points ahead of the Cavaliers in ninth place. Brandon Jennings had just six points on 2-for-11 shooting to go with his eight assists.
"It's another game where one of the better point guards has gotten the better of us," Bucks coach Scott Skiles said. "That's happened often this year and that's not all on Brandon. It's on our defense and it's on the guy that's guarding him."
Jennings made back-to-back 3-pointers in the final 91 seconds to cut Boston's lead to 98-93 with 1:19 left. Milwaukee got within two points on Ilyasova's put-back layup, but Garnett sank four free throws in the final 15 seconds to clinch it.
The Bucks travel to Atlanta and Orlando on Friday and Saturday.
"We have to get it done," Gooden said. "You know, it's funny. We never get blown out. We fight to the end, and it just kind of (upsets) us that we come up short every time, almost."
Rondo had six rebounds and five assists in the third quarter, when the Celtics went on a 20-4 run to turn a five-point deficit into a double-digit lead. Boston led by 17 in the fourth quarter and had a 98-83 edge with 3 minutes left when the Bucks scored 10 straight points, including a pair of 3-pointers by Jennings 12 seconds apart.
Skiles said Jennings seemed as though he didn't want to take shots.
"That's part of the growing process for me," Jennings said. "Right now my teammates are making shots. ... I just felt like I didn't have to do so much because my teammates were making so many shots."
Ilyasova hit a putback that cut it to 98-96 before Garnett sank a pair of free throws with 14.4 seconds left. The Celtics gave Jennings a layup but he missed it, and he also missed a 3-point attempt before Garnett grabbed the rebound and went back to the foul line for two more free throws.
Chris Wilcox came off the bench to grab 13 rebounds in 26 minutes for Boston.
Brandon Bass, making his second consecutive start because of Jermaine O'Neal's wrist injury, scored 16 points with seven rebounds for Boston. Milwaukee led 60-55 with 8:34 left in the third quarter when the Celtics scored the next 12 points and 20 out of 24 to open an 11-point lead.
Both teams were playing for the second consecutive night following the All-Star break.
Boston beat Cleveland, then the ninth-place team in the East, on Tuesday to hold onto eighth place in the East. The Bucks were coming off a 119-118 victory over the Washington Wizards earned when Ilyasova tipped in Jennings' miss with 2.2 seconds left.
Ilyasova had 10 points in the first quarter and Rondo had eight, when the teams finished tied 25-all. The Bucks took the lead with Larry Sanders' tip-in on the first possession of the second quarter and led for the rest of the half, but Boston cut a nine-point deficit to four just before the break when Rondo drove for a layup and then Ray Allen stole the ensuing inbounds pass to set up Keyon Dooling's 3-pointer with 0.9 seconds left.
Garnett and Sanders exchanged words, drawing a double technical foul with 6:23 left in the second quarter. ... Gooden had 16 points and six assists and Jennings had seven assists at halftime. ... O'Neal missed his third straight game with a sprained left wrist. ... Mike Dunleavy picked up a technical foul complaining after he was beaten for a rebound by Rondo down the stretch. ... It was Rondo's 16th career triple-double, and his 10th in the regular season.
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