After Kevin Garnett put the game away with a late jumper, teammate Paul Pierce jumped on his back for a ride. The way the "Big Ticket" carried the Celtics in the fourth quarter, the rest of the team should have jumped on, too.

Boston improved to an NBA-best 27-3 with a tough 97-93 victory over the Houston Rockets last night at a sold-out TD Banknorth Garden. The Celtics are only the sixth team in NBA history to win 27 of its first 30 games, the last being the 1995-96 Bulls, who won a league-record 72 games. Garnett (26 points) scored 11 in the fourth quarter and nailed a clinching 19-footer with 22.2 seconds left.

Celtics guard Rajon Rondo sat out last Sunday's game against the Lakers with a sore right hamstring, the first game missed because of injury of his young career. But his time on the sideline was short-lived, as trainer Ed Lacerte cleared him to play yesterday morning.

"I just didn't talk to Rondo," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before last night's game. "I just talked to Eddie. With the hamstring thing, you really have to trust the trainer on this one. So if Rondo gets hurt, we'll just throw Eddie under the bus."

Rondo looked more rusty than hurt, as he missed his first two shots. But he moved swiftly up and down the floor and had 4 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds in eight first-quarter minutes. Rondo's pass to Ray Allen led to a 3-pointer with 6:21 left in the first, which gave the Celtics a 15-7 lead. Eddie House, who replaced Rondo, nailed a 3-pointer to give Boston a 28-16 lead with 1:01 left in the quarter.

The Celtics finished the first with a 30-16 lead after shooting 68.4 percent and scoring 8 fast-break points. The Rockets shot only 29.2 percent in the quarter, with Yao Ming 2 for 10 from the field.

The Celtics took a 40-20 lead on a putback by rookie forward Glen Davis with 8:21 remaining in the half. The Rockets got their deficit under double digits when Yao hit two free throws with 2:13 left in the second quarter to make it 46-37. A Luther Head jumper trimmed Houston's deficit to 49-42 with 1:13 left in the half.

The Celtics went into halftime with a 53-42 lead after shooting 59.5 percent from the field. Pierce had 14 points and five rebounds at the break, while Garnett had 10 points. Houston's Bonzi Wells had 14 points off the bench through two quarters, while Yao had 6 points on 2-of-11 shooting.

Yao got it going in the third quarter. His 3-point play with 7:39 left in the third trimmed the Rockets' deficit to 60-49. He then dunked on Garnett to slice Houston's deficit to 65-57. A surprised Garnett smirked afterward.

Another 3-point play by Yao brought Houston to within 69-64, with 2:59 left in the quarter. Yao, however, was called for three seconds with Boston up, 72-64, with 2:34 left in the third. Twenty-one seconds later, he was called for a charge. And with 45.6 seconds left in the quarter, Yao picked up his third foul after going over Scot Pollard's back with Boston up, 76-66. A putback by Wells after a Yao miss sliced Houston's deficit to 76-68.

Yao scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in the third. Houston outscored Boston, 26-23, in the quarter.

The Rockets opened the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run, Rafer Alston's 3-point play giving Houston a 79-78 advantage at the 8:56 mark. It was Houston's first lead since 7-6.

Celtics center Kendrick Perkins fouled out with 6 points and 2 rebounds in 26 minutes with Houston up, 82-80, with 8:30 left. A fast-break layup by Allen gave Boston the lead, 85-84, with 6:17 remaining.

Besides the 6-foot-11-inch Garnett, the Celtics didn't have anyone taller than 6-9 to guard Yao. The problem for Yao, however, was he had to guard Garnett, too.

Garnett nailed a jumper over Yao with 5:33 left, beating the shot-block buzzer, to give Boston an 87-84 lead. A 3-pointer by Shane Battier with 5:08 remaining tied the game.

Garnett's offensive rebound led to a tiebreaking layup by Rondo (13 points) with 3:55 to play. Garnett's tough defense on Yao led to a miss with 2:56 left, and Garnett followed with a 22-foot jumper to give Boston a 91-87 lead.

With 2:22 left, after a timeout, Garnett pointed all over the arena in hopes of firing up the fans. It worked.

Wells nailed two free throws to slice Boston's lead to 91-89. After driving past Yao and drawing a foul on Wells, Garnett nailed 1 of 2 free throws to put the Celtics up, 92-89, with 2:04 left. After a Garnett steal, he nailed a 13-foot jumper with 1:16 remaining for a 94-89 advantage.

Alston's jumper kept Houston within reach at 94-91 with 1:02 remaining, but Garnett sealed the win with a long jumper with 22.2 seconds left. The Rockets called time out, and the Celtics faithful were on their feet as Pierce jumped on Garnett's back.

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