BOSTON, March 5 (Reuters) - Kevin Garnett poured in a season-high 31 points to spark the Boston Celtics to a 90-78 home victory over the Detroit Pistons and become the first team to reach the NBA playoffs.
The red-hot Celtics sent an early message to Detroit, their closest rivals in the Eastern Conference, never trailing as they rolled to their sixth successive win.
"This was a big game for us," Garnett told reporters. "To win this, we have the top record. It was a huge game for us and we knew that from day one."
The Atlantic Division leaders now have the NBA's best record and own a four-game lead over Central Division-leading Detroit in the East.
"It's going to be a grind," said Detroit guard Chauncey Billups. "You know it's going to be physical. They're not going to surprise us and we're not going to surprise them."
The Celtics opened a 14-point lead but were caught as the Pistons used a 17-3 run to tie the game at 69-69 early in the fourth quarter.
However, the visitors never took the lead and scored just nine more points as Boston eased away for the victory.
"How we started is how we finished," said Detroit coach Flip Saunders. "Slow start, methodical, didn't execute and didn't run our stuff.
"The ball didn't move, and against them you have to move the ball. We didn't do that."
Boston's Kendrick Perkins had a career-high 20 rebounds to go with 10 points. Billups led the Pistons with 23 points, including 14-of-15 from the foul line, and Rasheed Wallace had 23 points.
* LeBron James torched the New York Knicks for 50 points, adding 10 assists, eight rebounds and four steals to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 119-105 road win. James had his second 50-point game of the season and has scored 95 points in two games against New York of the current campaign.
* The Houston Rockets won a franchise-record 16th straight game, their fourth since losing Yao Ming for the season to a foot injury, as Tracy McGrady scored 25 points in a 117-99 home win over the Indiana Pacers. The Rockets have won 20 of their last 21.
* Jason Richardson scored 42 points against his old team and rookie Jared Dudley pulled down a season-high 18 rebounds as the Charlotte Bobcats ended the visiting Golden State Warriors' four-game winning streak with a 118-109 win.
* Allen Iverson had 31 points and 12 assists and Carmelo Anthony had 30 points and 13 rebounds as the Denver Nuggets pulled off a 126-113 home victory over the Phoenix Suns.
* The Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the Sacramento Kings 116-109 in double overtime to snap a six-game losing streak.
* The Utah Jazz won their 17th straight home game, cruising past the Minnesota Timberwolves 105-76. (Writing by Mike Shalin; Editing by Alastair Himmer and Peter Rutherford)