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Celtics 109, Knicks 97

Green thump

Celtics administer a sound beating to woeful Knicks

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / March 18, 2010

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It’s difficult to gauge just how useful these blowouts against inferior teams are — beyond the value of a victory in the Celtics’ race for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics are now tied with the Hawks for that spot — and the right to avoid LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. But whether last night’s 109-97 victory over the Knicks means the Celtics are actually improving their ball movement and defensive execution remains to be seen.

After limping home following a whipping by the Cavaliers, the Celtics spent the past two games pelting the Pistons and Knicks in games that weren’t competitive after halftime. Last night, the Celtics led by 19 at the break and coach Doc Rivers seized the opportunity to get his veterans some rest.

The abbreviated night didn’t prevent Paul Pierce from scoring 29 points in 24 minutes or Kevin Garnett from hitting 9 of 11 shots, also in 24 minutes. And it didn’t stop Rajon Rondo from racking up 12 assists as the Celtics led by as many as 27.

Pierce, despite picking up two early fouls, tallied 16 points in the third quarter and had his highest output since dropping 35 on Atlanta Jan 29. Only twice this season has Pierce, who did not speak with the media for the second consecutive game, scored more than 30 points.

So Rivers has made it a priority to get his All-Star forward ignited offensively as the playoffs approach.

“I think it’s his second, maybe third game in a row where fouls have been a problem,’’ Rivers said of Pierce. “He came back in like he hadn’t missed a beat, so it was pretty good. You know, you could see it even in the second half, he was even forcing it, probably a little more than we wanted, but it was good for him.’’

Rivers is hoping respites for the Big Three and productive nights from the bench will provide momentum for a difficult three-game road trip to Houston, Dallas, and Utah that begins tomorrow.

What the Celtics did the past two games was capitalize on teams who have nothing at stake, and they haven’t always thrived against inferior teams.

The Celtics played two difficult previous games with the Knicks, including an overtime victory Nov. 22 at Madison Square Garden. Last night, the Celtics began the game with a 7-0 run and led for the remainder of the game.

The Knicks have been riddled with inconsistency as they prepare for the biggest summer in franchise history. It finally appears as if the players, many of whom won’t be back, are playing out the string. The lone Knick who appeared interested was David Lee, who again burned the Celtics for 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists.

New York sliced the lead to 42-35 on a 3-pointer by Al Harrington but the Celtics responded with a 26-14 run to end the half, mostly against a porous New York defense that looked uninterested.

“There were a lot of toos out there,’’ Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They were too big, too quick, too good, and the road trip a little too long. They are playing at a pretty high level right now.’’

Pierce and Ray Allen were left open for 3-pointers. Rondo freely roamed the lane, and Garnett popped elbow jumper and after jumper. Boston shot a sparkling 63 percent in the first 24 minutes with Pierce and Garnett combining for 29 points.

The most impressive aspect was the ball movement, which has been an issue the past several weeks. Of the 26 baskets the Celtics scored in the first half (when the starters played most of their minutes), 19 came by assists, seven by Rondo. Now this production came against a team with little to play for, not even draft position.

When the Knicks acquired Stephon Marbury in 2004, they traded a first-round pick to Phoenix, which the Suns traded to Utah. The pick, held by the Jazz for five years, was protected through the first 22 picks in 2009 but unprotected for 2010.

The Jazz passed the pick last year and will cash in their lottery ticket this June, perhaps with a top-five selection.

With salary cap space for signing maybe two maximum-salary players this summer, the Knicks are just waiting for the season to end to kick most of their roster out onto Eighth Avenue and begin the chase for LeBron.

So their lack of motivation was not shocking, but the Celtics weren’t concerned; they used their former archrivals to regain their swagger.

“It was important to win tonight for sure, knowing the three games that we have,’’ Rivers said. “I like where we’re going. I said it before the Cleveland game and I said [it] after the Cleveland game. We’re not there yet and I told our guys that. We’ve got to keep working, stay positive and keep pushing.’’

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