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Celtics 118, Knicks 116

Clock and dagger

Pierce connects, then time runs out on Knicks

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Madison Square Garden stage hadn’t been this big in years. Winning streaks stage left. Scoring streaks stage right. Stars in the front row. Singers. Actors. Directors. Models. Big Apple celebs everywhere, buzzing.

The atmosphere in the arena for every second of the Celtics’ 118-116 win last night over the Knicks was the kind that brings out award-winning performances in Paul Pierce, and after dealing with flu-like symptoms the past week, he had three days of rest to prepare for the role.

All night, the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire was on fire and the Celtics — fully aware that he was scorching — still let him have a ninth straight 30-plus point scoring explosion (he had 39). But in the most crucial moments, Pierce played the part of the extinguisher.

With the game knotted at 116 with 12.2 seconds left, Pierce came off the bench, his gaze steely but still telling, like a poker player sitting on ace/king. The ball was going into no one else’s hands but his.

He took the inbounds pass and dribbled to the top of the key, where a screen from Kevin Garnett was waiting to pick off Knicks point guard Raymond Felton. Pierce was left with a one-on-one matchup with Stoudemire.

There wasn’t a soul on the Celtics bench who didn’t know what was coming.

“The bench was laughing,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “They were all saying ‘right side,’ because they knew where he was going.’’

Stoudemire ended up being an accidental escort.

“I was a little surprised that he gave it to me,’’ Pierce said. “He played me to go right.’’

Pierce drove hard, then stepped back, pulling up from 14 feet and slashing the go-ahead shot through the heart of the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak. He had rehearsed the moment in the preseason, drilling a game-winner and then taking a home run trot, calling the shot a “walk-off.’’

Last night, after giving the Celtics their 11th straight win?

“Not quite a walk-off,’’ Pierce said. “I left too much time on the clock.’’

With 0.4 seconds left, Stoudemire put up a prayer from 3-point range, and when it splashed through, it seemed like the prayer had been answered.

Stoudemire’s arms shot up. So did the Knicks bench.

“I actually thought it counted,’’ Pierce said. “I was stunned for a minute after all the theatrics.’’

But standing under the basket, Celtics guard Rajon Rondo had a clear view.

“I looked at the scoreboard, and I saw the lights go off,’’ Rondo said. “I was hoping I was right about it.’’

The officials reviewed the shot and saw it the same way, ruling the shot came after the buzzer. Having put on a masterful performance as the evening’s spoiler, Pierce walked to center court, stood on the Knicks’ logo, and took a bow, knowing he had stolen the show from a Knicks team dying to prove its newfound status in the Eastern Conference was legit. And he loved it.

“I love these types of environments,’’ Pierce said. “It’s rare when you get these types of environments in the regular season. There’s only so many games you circle on the schedule to where this is going to be a playoff-type atmosphere, playoff-type game. The guys on this team know which games those are, and this was definitely one of them. We love these games.’’

Pierce finished with 32 points on 10-of-18 shooting, shaking off the struggles of the previous week.

“I needed a breakout game,’’ he said. “I’ve been under the weather, just really fatiguing me over the last week or so with flu-like symptoms, but I’m pretty much over them now, feeling good and ready to get back on track.’’

Garnett rung up his 12th double-double (20 points, 13 rebounds) while locking up Stoudemire down the stretch. (“I’ll probably go home and watch this game just to watch those two go at it,’’ Pierce said.)

Ray Allen scored 26 points, drilling four 3-pointers, including a momentum-swinging 24-footer from the corner that gave the Celtics a 116-113 lead with 1:02 left in the fourth.

“I felt like we had our backs against the wall all night, couldn’t get over the hump,’’ Pierce said. “Ray hit the three and got us over the hump and it gave us a shot. It put us in a position to win.’’

Still the Knicks sent a message, scoring more points on the Celtics than any other team this season and also shooting at the best clip of any of Boston’s opponents (53.1 percent). The Celtics were trying to keep up, shooting 52.3 percent.

“It’s [only] a few teams in the NBA that test our defense,’’ Pierce said. “That’s one of them.’’

With more firepower than they’ve had in years, the Knicks, who fell to 16-10, are trying to test the unchallenged supremacy of the Celtics (20-4) in the Atlantic Division.

“We definitely earned our respect,’’ said Stoudemire, who also had 10 rebounds. “I guarantee you that Boston respects us. We are not slouches. We are going to play every single night until the horn goes off, and Boston knows it.’’

Before last night, Pierce wasn’t ready to call the Knicks a rival. But afterward, he was ready to consider last night the first chapter in the latest installment.

“It’s a start,’’ Pierce said. “You’ve got to start somewhere. Who knows where it’s going to take us? It’s definitely a good start if you guys want to call it a rivalry.

“But that’s how they start, two elite teams going at it, battling in the regular season and the playoffs. But, you know, there’s still a ways to go.’’

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