SEATTLE (AP) -- Forget those two new guys who give Boston its latest version of the Big Three. Paul Pierce can still carry the Celtics just like the past when he was the only option.
While most of the attention focused on Ray Allen's return to Seattle, it was Pierce who took over for Boston on Thursday night, much as he had to do in past seasons without the type of All-Star help now surrounding him. Pierce scored 26 of his season-high 37 points in the second half, and the Celtics held off the pesky SuperSonics 104-96.
With Kevin Garnett unable to match his strong first half and Allen never finding an offensive groove, it was Pierce who made shot after shot in the second half to help the league's best team avoid an embarrassing loss.
"We've got so many players capable," Pierce said. "It could be me one night, and we recognize that. Nights that [Garnett] or Ray has it going we recognize that and try to get it to them as much as we can."
The Celtics (24-3) not only have the NBA's best record, they equaled their win total from the entire 2006-07 season by beating the Sonics on Thursday in Seattle. Here's a look at their improvement:
Pierce hit 11 of 27 shots and 10 of 11 free throws. He was dominant in the closing minutes of the third quarter and into the fourth, scoring 14 points in a little more than 7 minutes to help the Celtics win their fourth straight and improve to 24-3.
The 24 wins matches the Celtics' victory total from all of last season.
"That means we were really bad," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That doesn't mean we're good this year. We've done nothing in our minds. We've proven we can play 27 games. That's it."
Still, it's been a pretty impressive 27 games.
Garnett scored 14 of his 23 points in the first half, and Allen added a mostly quiet 10, playing his first game in Seattle since a draft night trade that sent the seven-time All-Star to the Celtics.
Boston even got 13 points from reserve Eddie House. He and Pierce combined to score the Celtics' first 18 points of the fourth quarter -- in just 5 minutes.
Pierce closed the third quarter on a tear and carried his hot hand into the fourth, finally allowing the Celtics to pull away. Pierce started the stretch by sending Wally Szczerbiak flailing past him with a ball fake, then hitting an open 3-pointer. On Boston's next possession, Pierce bulled over Seattle rookie Kevin Durant on his way to an easy layup.
House scored Boston's first five points of the fourth quarter, then Pierce hit consecutive jumpers to give the Celtics a 79-72 lead. House came off a screen to hit a 22-footer as the shot clock expired and Pierce added another jumper and the Celtics lead was 11.
"It was tough, he can make shots from anywhere on the floor. I just tried to put a hand up and contest his shots and he still was knocking them down," Durant said of guarding Pierce. "It's tough and I don't think too many people can stop that."
Durant led Seattle with 25 points and Delonte West, part of the trade that brought Allen to Boston, added 19.
But this night was about Pierce, whose previous high this season was 32 points against Milwaukee on Dec. 14, and Allen's return.
Allen was given two standing ovations before the game, as Seattle fans sold out KeyArena for one of the few times this season, and recognized Allen's efforts in his 4 1/2 seasons in a Sonics' uniform.
Allen missed his first two shots badly, missing long on a 15-foot bank shot 26 seconds in and then overshooting a 3-pointer a few minutes later.
Two cutting layups got Allen into the offense, but he made just four of 13 shots.
"Everything I got was tough," Allen said. "They know what I do and tried to take away everything I did."
Garnett was 8-of-22 from the field, but had 14 rebounds.
Seattle stuck around for much of the first half and took the lead early in the second half. Chris Wilcox's dunk to start the half gave Seattle a 48-47 lead and Durant later hit a 3 to give Seattle a 51-50 lead.
Moments later, Durant missed a wide open 3 that would have given Seattle its biggest lead. Allen responded by making the same shot Durant missed and Pierce hit a 3 of his own to give Boston a 59-53 lead. Seattle never got closer than two points the rest of the night.
Seattle was without G Luke Ridnour, who may miss a couple of games with soreness in his left quadriceps. ... Garnett was fouled hard by West on a breakaway in the second quarter, crashing hard into a baseline table. Boston wanted a flagrant foul, but none was called. ... Among those in attendance: Basketball Hall of Famer George Gervin, WNBA star Sue Bird and Seattle Seahawks Julian Peterson, Nate Burleson, Rocky Bernard and Seneca Wallace.