NEW YORK -- Admit it. The thought crossed your mind. More than once.
Until the final buzzer sounded yesterday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, there existed the distinct possibility the Celtics would suffer another case of late-game brain lock. All the usual symptoms were there: a squandered double-digit lead, the temptation to rely too heavily on Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis, foul trouble, defensive lapses, insufficient rebounding. It all seemed to indicate a bad ending.
But that ignores the shortcomings of the Larry Brown-led, Isiah Thomas-assembled Knicks. The Celtics met their match in New York, a team just as inconsistent, inexperienced, and uncertain how to win. So, Boston earned its first road win the hard way. Clinging to the slimmest of leads down the stretch, the Celtics did not panic but rather executed and made use of unflappable third-string point guard Dan Dickau at the line to secure a 102-99 victory.
Sure, the Celtics (7-9) wanted to extend their 14-point, third-quarter lead. They preferred a less pressure-packed fourth before a sellout crowd. But that would not be in keeping with the team's style. If it came easily against the Knicks, then the Celtics would not be the team fans have come to love and hate.
''With us, we're going to make it close at some point," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. ''It just feels that way . . . We made it interesting, but we got the win."
The Celtics entered the fourth holding a 76-67 lead. They stayed somewhat comfortably in front for the first few minutes of the quarter before fouls and missed shots started to have a cumulative effect. A free throw by Jackie Butler brought New York within 4 points (82-78). Davis, who served as pep leader and clutch scorer, kept Boston ahead with an energizing dunk here and a pair of calming 19-footers there as New York tried to close the gap despite costly free throw misses from Stephon Marbury. Although Marbury went 5 for 8 from the line in the fourth, and 17 for 21 overall, the time of his misses made them more memorable.
Still, Marbury more than made up for his free throw shooting when he scored on a layup and brought New York within 2 (89-87) with 3 minutes 26 seconds remaining. Marbury drove to the basket all game, taking just two jumpers (a 17-foot make and a 17-foot miss) on 22 attempts. With that aggressive approach, Marbury led all scorers with 35 points.
''I do really think [Stephon] is trying to do everything that Larry is asking him to do," said Rivers. ''You can see what he's figured out. 'If I can score in transition, I don't have to do any of that stuff.' He's a smart player and that's why he's pushing it up. He's so dangerous in transition that we were just trying to get our bigs to get back and clog up the paint, but he attacks them as well."
Both teams made a run late in the fourth with New York staging a 6-0 spurt that brought it within 1 point (96-95) with 36.2 seconds remaining. On the Celtics' next possession, coming out of a timeout, Pierce lobbed an inbound pass inside to a fronted Al Jefferson for a wide-open layup. That kind of key basket by a young player off a feed from a veteran was another hopeful sign for the Celtics, who have four more road games ahead.
The Knicks closed within 1 point (98-97) again. But Dickau made free throws that gave Boston a 100-97 lead with 16.1 seconds left. A pair of Marbury foul shots left the Knicks behind, 100-99. But again, Boston made its free throws. Trailing by 3 points, there would be no late-game heroics from Nate Robinson, who missed a last-second 3-pointer.
''I like how we kept it going," said Davis (27 points). ''Usually, when guys come back from a lead, we kind of hang our heads and lose the momentum. But we kept executing and getting defensive stops."
Before exiting the game late in the first quarter with the Celtics trailing by 2 after leading by as many as 8, Davis admonished his teammates. In front of the Boston bench, Davis clapped his hands and said, ''C'mon guys, wake up. We're acting like zombies."
After a strong start that illustrated the Celtics' desire to win their first road game, the Knicks reeled off a 19-4 run to take a 7-point lead (22-15) with 2:19 remaining in the first. Marbury capped the run with a driving layup en route to scoring 24 in the first half. The Celtics took a tenuous 46-45 lead into halftime, primarily because the combined efforts of Davis and Pierce matched Marbury's production.
Boston built an impressive 14-point lead near the end of the third, using a couple of short runs keyed by timely baskets.
A pair of back-to-back 3-pointers by Pierce and Delonte West gave the Celtics a 64-51 edge, as well as the jolt of momentum and confidence they needed midway through the third. But it would have been more impressive if Boston had been able to sustain its lead, though admittedly the team has trouble playing from in front. The Celtics seem to prefer the task of staging a comeback. They nearly found themselves in such a predicament in the fourth.