NEW YORK — Five days ago, the Knicks invaded Boston, pushed the Celtics around on their famed parquet, and rolled out with a no-sweat, double-digit win over a bitter division rival.
Such an embarrassing (and humbling) loss burned the Celtics, who had become accustomed to owning New York and the division title in the Doc Rivers era. The Knicks had drama and losses; the Celtics had stability. No, this loss wouldn’t stand.
So, Boston wanted not just payback in a rematch Sunday at Madison Square Garden, but a chance to prove against a potential first-round playoff opponent that it didn’t throw its best punches in the previous matchup, that it just had an “off night.”
Well, the Celtics didn’t prove much of anything as they were slapped with a 108-89 drubbing where derisive chants rained down on the visitors from the rafters at the end.
The Knicks won their eighth straight and took the season series from the Celtics for the first time since 2003-04, the season before Rivers took over in Boston.
“It’s very disappointing,” Paul Pierce said. “I definitely didn’t expect a showing like this, coming into Madison Square Garden, especially with the way they did us in our home building, especially being a team that we may face in the playoffs.”
No doubt, New York sent a powerful message, one that will resonate if these teams do, in fact, meet up in the postseason — and the Celtics know it. “If we see them in the playoffs, they’ll feel like they have our number,” Pierce added, “but we did it ourselves.”
In their matchup Tuesday in Boston, the Knicks crushed their nemesis by scoring 50 points in the paint. But Sunday, the Knicks switched it up and did their damage from outside, hitting 14 of 27 3-pointers to suffocate the shorthanded Celtics.
“We did great job last game taking them off the three, and they drove us,” Rivers said. “Tonight, the exact opposite.”
Said guard Courtney Lee: “They were hitting everything.”
Not everything, but close.
The Knicks made 11 3-pointers in the first half and their hot night from beyond the arc was summed up when Raymond Felton banked in a 55-footer at the halftime buzzer.
The Knicks made 6 of 8 3-pointers in the second quarter alone.
“I would say it was bad defense, clearly, because we don’t like giving up the threes,” Rivers said, “but give them credit, I thought they had the spirit of the pass, the entire night.”
New York led by as many as 17 in the first half and the Celtics never really threatened from there, falling behind by as many as 24 in the second.
“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Pierce, who scored 24 points and grabbed a season-high 15 rebounds. “They just beat us to the punch all night.
“They came off the pick-and-roll and moved the ball. By them doing that, we’ve got to take a [page] out of their [playbook]. That’s how we’ve got to play.
“We’ve got to be able to move the ball a little bit more, come off, drive the ball, be more aggressive. I thought we isolated too much on our end.”
But, at the end, the Celtics struggled on defense, an area they’ve struggled in night after night without Kevin Garnett, who missed his fifth straight game with a sore left ankle
“I guess the only positive [is], if we get to see them again in the playoffs, hopefully KG will be a lot healthier then,” said Pierce, who turned an ankle and may sit out to rest Monday in Minnesota, according to Rivers.
“He was a big difference in the win we got against them here in the Garden,” Pierce said of Garnett. “That element makes us a different team, adding him.”
There’s a question of how much the Celtics can criticize their defense when Garnett isn’t on the floor, but Rivers said that they still can play on that end. It’s on offense where the team is going to be erratic.
“We’re going to have good games like the other night where we scored 118 points and we’re going to have games like tonight,” he said. “Your best passer is [Rajon] Rondo, and your second-best passer is Kevin Garnett, so you’re going to have good and bad offensive nights.
“But defensively tonight, we were off. We gave up plays that we walked over in shootaround, which for a coach, is maddening; we’ll address that.”
Six Knicks scored in double figures, led by 24 points and 10 rebounds from Carmelo Anthony. Chris Copeland scored 22 off the bench for New York.
The Celtics got little from anyone not named Pierce or Jeff Green, who scored a game-high 27 points. Boston’s three other starters scored a combined 6 points.
Pierce has a heavier workload with Garnett out, but he said, “I can’t sit down and cry about it.” Nor are the Celtics using Garnett’s absence as an excuse.
“No matter who’s on the floor, we have to have a defensive presence,” Green said. “We have to make sure every shot for them is contested and every time down the floor we’re making them work. No matter if Kevin’s on the floor or not, we’ve got to be together, we’ve got to be on one page, so it’s on us.”
Rivers was hoarse after the game. And even that is tied to Garnett’s absence. “When Kevin’s out, it just hurts your defense, period,” Rivers explained. “And not only just his play, but his ability of accountability. He can tell everybody the stuff that, right now with him out, I have to say it. That’s why I have no voice.”
But without Garnett, the rest of the Celtics had no heart in another humbling loss Sunday. The Celtics are playing it smart by resting him for the playoffs, but his return can’t come soon enough.