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Knicks need to grow some in the Garden

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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NEW YORK — The story line could not have been any more compelling for a regular-season game, yet the players on the Celtics bench were sitting with their legs crossed as if they were watching a first-round match at the All-England Tennis Club.

Ninety-four feet away, the Knicks were treating last night’s game at Madison Square Garden as if they were a 16 seed upsetting a 1 seed. The players were holding each other back after every fourth-quarter New York basket, and they poured onto the court in jubilation after it appeared Amar’e Stoudemire’s 3-pointer at the buzzer counted. After a few moments, officials ruled it was released after the buzzer sounded.

The Celtics won this battle of winning streaks, 118-116, on Paul Pierce’s 14-foot fadeaway jumper with 0.4 seconds left, but the difference between these two Atlantic Division foes was merely poise. One team has been there before, knows how to win, and never panics. The other reacted to success like a teenager after a first kiss.

There was never a bit of anxiety on the Celtics side, even when Stoudemire punished them with an array of baskets and some chest-bumping after each thundering dunk, or when Raymond Felton used his bulk to drive into the paint for tough layups, or when Danilo Gallinari heated up in the second half with all 20 of his points.

The Celtics kept with their game plan, refusing to counter the Knicks’ 3-pointers with long balls of their own. They simply made adjustments. The Knicks were 8 for 20 from the 3-point line through three quarters and 1 for 3 in the fourth.

Defensive intensity is what has brought the Celtics success the last few years. The Knicks had relied on outscoring teams in shootouts during their recent eight-game win streak. Last night was a shootout, but the Celtics won their 11th straight game with their usual style, showing savvy and executing well while the Knicks appeared frazzled in the final minutes.

With accomplishment comes assurance, and the Celtics never allowed the intensity of the game to affect their emotions. To players such as Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, who sat on the bench in street clothes because they are injured, it was a tennis match, and their teammates picked up on their composure. While the Knicks were losing their minds at the prospect of a victory, the O’Neals were joking about a security guard’s shoes during a fourth-quarter timeout.

The Celtics erased a 4-point deficit with a 7-0 run over a 61-second span late in the fourth. With Spike Lee and the Knicks faithful screaming for a stop, Ray Allen calmly sank a 3-pointer in front of the same New York bench that had been partying just moments before, putting Boston ahead, 116-113.

“We’ve been in this situation before,’’ said point guard Rajon Rondo, nursing a sprained left ankle that forced him to momentarily leave the game. “Our Big Three came through for us tonight, playing well time after time. It was a great team effort. [The Knicks] are rolling, but we managed to take the punch, a couple of punches they threw at us tonight, fought the adversity and continued and got the win.’’

The Knicks challenged the Celtics defense with pinpoint 3-point shooting created by Stoudemire’s presence in the paint. He scored 33 points through the first three quarters. The Celtics couldn’t stop the pick-and-roll, and when they did hinder the two-man play, Stoudemire simply took Kevin Garnett or Glen Davis off the dribble. And with so much attention paid to Stoudemire, the Knicks were able to swing the ball to an open man.

The 3-point shooting especially bothered the Celtics, who pride themselves on contesting treys. Rondo screamed at the bench in frustration in the third quarter after Gallinari canned another from near the sideline.

Meanwhile, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was flustered by the officiating. Courtney Kirkland called Garnett for a delay-of-game technical foul for grabbing the ball out of the net after a basket and bouncing it to the official. Rivers was flabbergasted. Pierce drove to the basket and was roughed up by two Knicks before completing a layup with no call, and Rivers smiled. And when Gallinari’s fourth-quarter runner was called good a full second after he was fouled lightly by Pierce, Rivers sat down and shook his head.

The coach realized things were going against his team, but he didn’t want to ignite the situation by displaying his anger. So he concealed it.

“I wasn’t getting [another tech],’’ Rivers said. “I can’t [get angry] because we’ve got an emotional team. I wish we weren’t so emotional so I can go crazy more. Because that’s actually what’s inside of me. When I think our team is more emotional, I try to sit down and laugh and smile and try to get us to play. We have to keep that focus like that.’’

The Celtics are champions of the Atlantic Division for at least another couple of weeks, or until they come back to MSG on March 21. A team that hasn’t reached the postseason in nearly seven years is truly enjoying the fruits of its laborious transformation under coach Mike D’Antoni, but the Knicks have a long way to go before they reach the Celtics’ level.

They have to act like they’ve been there, even when they haven’t. They were rattled down the stretch and the Celtics finished with a flurry of game-changing plays.

Meanwhile, the Knicks were clinging to the hope of a miracle shot that didn’t count. Their celebration ended up being futile and their enthusiasm was replaced by disappointment.

And the Celtics walked away calmly in victory, ready for another one tonight against Atlanta.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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