The Boston Celtics’ superstar trio of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen hasn’t had many growing pains in its first season. Neither has the Orlando Magic’s new duo of Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis.
The Celtics look to remain the NBA’s only undefeated team when they visit the Magic on Sunday in a matchup between division leaders.
The Celtics finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference at 24-58 last season, thanks in part to foot and elbow injuries that limited Pierce to a career-low 47 games. The offseason additions of Garnett and Allen, however, have quickly made Boston a contender.
Pierce, Garnett and Allen have each averaged more than 20.0 points to help the Atlantic Division-leading Celtics to their first 8-0 start since 1972-73, when they won their first 10 games en route to a 68-win season - still the franchise record.
The Magic (8-2), meanwhile, have used their best start since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season to take the top spot in the Southeast Division. Howard led them to a playoff berth last season, but getting swept by Detroit showed that Orlando was still a player away from taking the next step. The Magic feel they’ve found that player in Lewis, who joined the team in a sign-and-trade deal from Seattle over the summer.
Lewis is averaging 21.3 points while shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 48.5 percent from 3-point range. His accuracy from beyond the arc has cleared the lane for Howard, who’s averaging 21.8 points and 15.0 rebounds - both career highs.
Howard had 21 points and 19 rebounds in Orlando’s 95-70 victory over New Jersey on Friday.
“He’s amazing,” Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said. “Every night he brings it. Every practice he brings it. He is the leader of this team.”
Howard recorded his ninth double-double Friday after finishing second in the league with 60 last season, trailing only Garnett, who had 66 for Minnesota.
“The thing I like about (Howard) more than anything is his maturity,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He was getting banged around and he goes out and gets 19 rebounds.”
Garnett also delivered a double-double Friday, notching 26 points and 11 boards as Boston narrowly escaped its first loss of the season with a 92-91 win over Miami. Pierce made a go-ahead layup with 25 seconds remaining and Heat guard Dwyane Wade missed a jump shot in the closing seconds.
Despite remaining undefeated, the Celtics weren’t satisfied with their performance after squandering a 15-point fourth-quarter lead and winning by single digits for the first time since their second game of the season Nov. 4.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be,” said Pierce, who scored 12 points while playing with a strain in his back that almost forced coach Doc Rivers to scratch him from the lineup. “We’re far from a perfect team. We definitely have weaknesses right now.”
Orlando might be the best candidate yet to expose the weaknesses of the new-look Boston squad. Of the Celtics’ eight wins, only two have come against teams that currently have winning records.
The Magic won three of four games against the Celtics last season, including both contests at Amway Arena, where the Celtics have dropped four in a row since Nov. 29, 2004.
Howard averaged 14.3 points and 13.8 rebounds against Boston last season.
Garnett averaged 25.0 points, 12.5 boards and 6.5 assists in two head-to-head meetings with Howard while with the Timberwolves last season, but shot just 35.9 percent in those games.