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BOB RYAN

Strange ending for the Green

NEW YORK -- There was a timeout following a manly Jackie Butler put-back that had reduced a 14-point Celtics' lead to 5 with 10 minutes left, at which point an NBA scout Who Shall Go Nameless leaned over and said, quietly but authoritatively, ''Knicks by 5."

And why not? The guy had seen the Celtics play.

Coughing up second-half leads is one of the 2005-06 Celtics' specialties, and there was every indication the Madison Square Garden sellout crowd of 19,763 would soon be bearing witness to the latest Celtics collapse. But as you may very well have heard by now, something strange and altogether unpredictable happened. That Boston lead went down to 2, back up to 7, back to 3, and eventually down to 1, but it never disappeared, and when the buzzer sounded, Ricky Davis was clutching the rebound of a Nate Robinson off-target three and the Celtics, by god, had their first road victory of the year. The scoreboard said Boston 102, New York 99, and there would be no booth review.

Had 'em all the way, right, Coach?

''You know we're going to make it close," said Doc Rivers. ''But this was a great win for us. We needed a road win."

This was not, to be polite, a preview of the 2006 Eastern Conference finals. This was a battle of two franchise representatives who have known far better days, who have young players who are supposed to represent a bright future, and who would be thrilled just to make the playoffs. It was a sporting alternative to the grim struggle taking place several miles west at Giants Stadium, a fact Larry Brown was quite willing to acknowledge.

''See you've come to the JV game," he cracked upon spying one Boston scribe.

Rivers, being the great sports fan that he is, might also have preferred to be in attendance for that 17-10 Giants' triumph over the Cowboys. But the schedule called for his team to be in Madison Square Garden, and this was the first time this year he didn't have to beg for patience or apologize for the way his team had played in a road venue.

This time, he could talk about making pressure free throws (Dan Dickau, Davis), getting a big offensive boost from Delonte West, and the generally solid performances from his youngs -- if the frontcourt players are now officially ''bigs," then the kiddies in uniform will now officially be known as the ''youngs." He could focus more on how they got those two 14-point third-quarter leads (74-60, 76-62), rather than how they lost them. He could heap praise on Paul Pierce (28 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists) and Davis (27 points).

He could smile, and perhaps even start to look forward to tomorrow's game in Houston.

The same could be said of Pierce, who is playing as well as he ever has, and who was himself in need of a reward. For the first time in five road games this season, the opening query wasn't ''What went wrong?"

''I thought we executed a lot better today," he said. ''We got the ball to the people we were supposed to get the ball to and we made our free throws. We played smarter down the stretch."

Pierce's line spoke for itself, but not specifically evident from his numbers were three big plays that helped provide the final cushion Boston used to squeeze out this triumph. The score was 91-87 when Pierce alertly picked off an inside-out Trevor Ariza pass to Quentin Richardson and took it all the way for a nicely finished scoop of a 3-point play with 2:51 remaining. On the next Celtics' possession, he found Al Jefferson for a layup (96-89).

Those were important plays, but Pierce saved the biggest one for last. The lead was down to 96-95 with 36.2 seconds left when a sideline-inbounding Pierce delivered a Bird-like bullet to a fronted Jefferson for a very important layup.

Rivers acknowledged that he, like everyone else, is ''taking Paul and Ricky for granted," adding they just ''do what they do." The issue yesterday was that they (finally) received help.

''What I liked about the game," said GM Danny Ainge, ''was that Delonte [West] was more assertive offensively, and you could see that Paul and Ricky believed in him. Any time we can win without having to go to our two big scorers all the time is a blessing."

West had 17 points before fouling out on a loose ball foul with 2:03 left, and 11 of those points came in the pivotal third quarter, when the Celtics expanded a 46-45 halftime advantage to the aforementioned 14-point leads before a late Knicks surge reduced the margin to 76-67 entering the fourth. West was the beneficiary of some Knicks defensive confusion as the visitors repeatedly ran a play that had just been installed. If the Knicks didn't know West can play, they do now.

The same can be said for the Celtics and New York's 6-foot-11-inch rookie, Channing Frye, who dropped a career-high 25 on them in 34 extraordinarily efficient minutes. And to think that Frye had been DNP'd by Brown during that overtime loss to the Celtics on Opening Night.

If Frye was something of a revelation, there was nothing new about the way Stephon Marbury helped himself to his 35. Marbury is one guy who never has to be told to take it to the hoop. No fewer than 22 of his 24 first-half points were the result of his relentless driving. Davis was unable to discourage him, and when Marbury had nothing else to do, he created problems for the Boston bigs, as well. As Hubie Brown once said of Larry Bird, after watching him destroy his team in this very building, ''He was a menace."

The difference was that Brown made his comment in a losing capacity. Yesterday, the Celtics were able to withstand Marbury's continual excursions to the basket, Frye's killer jumpers, and the bruising inside efforts of young Jackie Butler. Now it's on to Houston, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Dallas.

''We're going to use this trip to find ourselves," said West. ''We need to find our identity. The best way to start this trip is with a W."

Who knows? The next time a lead on the road starts to slip away, some scout might even give them a teeny-weeny chance to win.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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