With one of the Big Three injured for last season's playoffs, the Boston Celtics were stretched thin and the Orlando Magic ended their hopes of repeating as champions.
Good health keyed the Celtics racing to the best record in the Eastern Conference this season, but now another member of the trio will be missing.
Paul Pierce begins an injury absence that will last at least two weeks as Boston visits the Magic in a Christmas Day matchup featuring the top teams in the East.
Just hours after scoring 16 fourth-quarter points in Tuesday's 103-94 win over Indiana, Pierce was in so much pain from a right knee infection that coach Doc Rivers says the seven-time All-Star called team trainer Ed Lacerte around 3 a.m. Wednesday. Lacerte took Pierce to the hospital, where they drained fluid from the forward's knee.
"What he's going through is pretty significant," guard Ray Allen said. "It is serious. Because me knowing Paul, he's always practicing and he's always playing, so for him not to be here, it must be very significant."
Pierce, the 2008 NBA finals MVP, had played in every game this season for the Celtics (22-5), averaging a team-best 18.2 points.
"It's unfortunate for Paul's situation because it was kind of like a freak accident, or a freak situation," Kevin Garnett said. "It's really weird when you get the details of it."
Although the Celtics will be without their top offensive threat, Garnett is expected to play after sitting out Tuesday with a thigh bruise, the first game he missed all season. The 12-time All-Star sat out last season's playoffs with strained knee ligaments, and Boston was eliminated by the Magic in seven games in the conference semifinals.
A healthy Garnett has helped the Celtics to a fast start, but even with the entire Big Three in uniform, Boston lost to Orlando 83-78 on Nov. 20 in the only meeting since last season's playoffs.
Pierce had a team-high 21 points, Allen had 15 and Garnett added 13 points and 11 rebounds, but the Celtics shot a season-low 34.5 percent and were 2 of 19 from 3-point range.
The Magic weren't much better offensively, committing 20 turnovers, and Dwight Howard was held to nine points, but Vince Carter scored a game-high 26.
This could be another tight defensive game. The Celtics allow a league-low average of 92.0 points and will likely try to keep pressure on Orlando, knowing they can't rely on Pierce at the offensive end.
Just as Boston, which has won 13 of 14 since losing to the Magic, is getting a little banged-up, Orlando is finally starting to get healthy.
The Magic defeated Houston 102-87 on Wednesday, just the second time this season they began a game with their regular starting five. Two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis sat out Orlando's first 10 games while serving a suspension and Jameer Nelson, an All-Star last season, made his first start Wednesday since Nov. 16 after missing 16 contests with a left knee injury.
Despite all the lineup shuffling, the Magic (22-7) look poised to defend the conference championship. It's no surprise Howard is a big reason why.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year had 20 rebounds for the second time in three games Wednesday and blocked four shots. Howard leads the league in both categories, averaging 13.1 boards and 2.5 blocks.
"I know that the only thing that is important is that if I'm blocking shots and rebounding we're going to win games," said Howard, who had 15 rebounds and three blocks against the Celtics last month.
The Magic have won seven of the last 10 meetings, including playoffs, as Howard has averaged 17.1 boards and 3.1 blocks.
LOS ANGELES (AP) Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher scarcely remember how to celebrate Christmas without a high-profile game smack in the middle of their holiday season.
That's life with the Los Angeles Lakers - and that goes for the Lakers' families, too.
``With the amount of gifts my kids receive, they could care less if I'm there or not,'' Fisher said with a laugh Thursday after the Lakers' light afternoon practice for their showdown with LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
``Santa Claus will do his job,'' the veteran point guard added. ``I've found that it's weird to think about not working on Christmas. A lot of guys realize it's special to be on that stage, while people are home with their eggnog relaxing.''
Bryant is similarly excited about facing James on Friday in a meeting of the top two vote-getters in the NBA All-Star balloting.
O'Neal's latest return to Los Angeles also will draw attention, although Bryant eliminated a long-thriving subplot in their meetings by winning his first title without Shaq last summer.
``It's a tradition, and it's really special to be a part of it,'' said Bryant, whose daughters get some of their presents on Christmas Eve and the rest early the following morning.
While it's no imposition to play on Christmas, it's still an opportunity - although the Lakers acknowledge this matchup isn't quite as energizing as last year's visit from the Boston Celtics, whose 19-game winning streak ended in the holiday rematch of the 2008 NBA finals. Los Angeles' 92-83 victory also happened to be coach Phil Jackson's 1,000th win.
While Los Angeles and Boston have one of the NBA's best rivalries, the Cavs have no significant history or animosity with the Lakers. Even Kobe and Shaq apparently are on good terms five years after ``the big breakup of '04,'' as Fisher calls O'Neal's departure for Miami.
``There's nothing there,'' Bryant said. ``It's about putting LeBron and myself on national TV. Outside of that, there's nothing. ... We were really using that game last year as a measuring stick. This year, it's a little different.''
The Cavaliers are enjoying balmy California while playing a Christmas game for the fourth time in James' seven seasons. They worked out at UCLA on Thursday before James and other players spent time with families who traveled to the West Coast for the holiday fun and sun.
``It's bigger for (the media) than it is for us,'' James said before the Cavs' overtime victory over the Kings on Wednesday night. ``You guys put a lot of emphasis on LeBron and Kobe and the Christmas Day game. I'm focused on Sacramento right now. When it happens it will be a fun game. It's two of the best teams in the league. It will be a good test for us.''
Los Angeles has won five straight and 16 of 17. Cleveland has won two in a row after holding off Sacramento. While the Lakers lead the league, the Cavaliers are third in the Eastern Conference - but Jackson sees something brewing in Cleveland after a slow start to the season.
``They're in a rhythm now,'' said Jackson, whose grown children usually gather in Los Angeles for the holidays. ``They're playing pretty good basketball. ... Yeah, (Bryant and James) are rivals. I think they like to compete against each other. There's mutual respect there.''
Although O'Neal's playing time has fluctuated this season, apparently to his displeasure - he ducked out without speaking to reporters after playing 22 minutes in Sacramento - he's likely to play significant minutes against the Lakers' talented front line led by 7-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
``I think it should be a very competitive game,'' said Gasol, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Lakers on Wednesday. ``They are a contender also, and they have very good players on their roster. We've got to make sure we defend our home court, first of all, and always try to send a message. It's always good to make a stand against an opponent that's trying to reach the same goal that you are.''
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Sacramento, Calif., contributed to this report.
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