THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Loss aside, New York passes test

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 16, 2010

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NEW YORK — They had won 13 of 14, but they were all quizzes. Some of them were even open-book.

But last night and tomorrow night constitute semester-exam time for the New York Knicks. Boston and Miami are not, you know, Sacramento and Charlotte.

Results from the first exam are in, and the Knicks received an A-minus.

Oh, by the way, they lost.

In a game that wasn’t over until it was over, and which had to be declared over-over, the Celtics defeated the Knicks, 118-116, at Madison Square Garden last night. It missed being a 119-118 Knicks’ victory by a matter of a tenth or two of a second. The game wasn’t officially ruled in Boston’s favor until the officials decided upon review that a 3-pointer by Amar’e Stoudemire was late after Paul Pierce had hit his latest clutch, go-ahead jumper with four-10ths of a second remaining.

The Knicks passed every eye test imaginable, but they still fell one crucial scoreboard basket short of a Celtics team that has won 11 consecutive games, none more improbable than this one. The Knicks brought it from the outset, dominating from the third minute of play, leading from 10-7 until a Ray Allen corner jumper on a selfless Pierce feed put the Celtics ahead, 116-113, with 1:02 left.

Led by Stoudemire’s 39 (on 15-for-22 shooting), a 26-point/14-assist performance by point guard Raymond Felton, 18 solid points from Wilson Chandler, and a sensational second half (all of his 20 after intermission) performance by Danilo Gallinari, the Knicks forced the action. Boston trailed by as many as 12 (79-67), and until the final two minutes had been turned back every time it had come within 2, come within 1, or even had the game tied.

But they are the Celtics, are they not?

“We just did a little bit of everything,’’ said Glen Davis, one of the men charged with guarding the increasingly unguardable Stoudemire. “We’ve been in this situation multiple times. When we’re down, you can’t count us out.’’

“We never panicked,’’ agreed Allen (26 points). “We found a way to get it done.’’

It’s very true the Celtics have been there before. We all know what they’re capable of. That’s why this evening was far more about the Knicks, who are trying to build something, and who need milestone performances to gain credibility. Notice I didn’t say victories. The Knicks did not have to win this game in order to gain the Celtics’ attention.

“We played them all night,’’ said Stoudemire. “We played great basketball tonight. They just did a great job down the stretch. We definitely got our respect [from them]. I guarantee you Boston respects that we’re going to bring it every night, and Boston knows it.’’

The Knicks are flat-out fun. They can shoot, and they can really spread the floor. Had Stoudemire’s shot been ruled good, he would have been the sixth Knick to hit a 3-pointer in this one. As for Felton, going from Larry Brown in Charlotte to Mike D’Antoni in New York has had the effect of springing the ex-North Carolina star from offensive incarceration. This guy was born to run, not walk the ball up the floor.

And believe everything you’ve been reading and hearing about Stoudemire. He is now a consummate inside-outside threat who has had more than 30 points in each of his last nine games, and whose 39 were the most deposited on the Celtics this season. The only Celtic who had any remote success handling him was the wily Kevin Garnett, but special props go to Pierce, who got in front of Stoudemire to help thwart a 4-footer that would have given New York its own 118-116 lead with 12.2 seconds to go.

On the ensuing possession, Doc Rivers called for the obvious: a clear-out for Pierce. He found himself guarded by Stoudemire, who is a good 3 inches taller.

But if you’d like to see textbook execution of a jab step and fallaway jumper, check out this one. Pierce’s 15-footer from the right wing slid through the cords with 0.4 remaining.

Stoudemire took the throw-in from rookie Landry Fields and got off an impressive shot of his own. It would have represented classic one-upmanship, but there was no way he could catch and shoot in the required time, although it was surely very close.

The loss hurts, of course, but the Knicks had plenty to hang their hats on coming out of this one. They made Boston empty just about every bullet in the chamber in order to get the W. Pierce reached deep into his bag of tricks to score 32. Allen hit 4 of 5 threes. They needed a 35-point fourth quarter. The Celtics were even a dazzling 21 for 21 from the foul line.

The Knicks made the Celtics dig very deep to bag this one. The score doesn’t lie: This was an old-fashioned NBA game showcasing extraordinary offensive skill, the kind of entertainment spectacle that made the league great before the game was hijacked by the fraidy-cat coaches who were happier when their team did not have the ball than when it did.

Happily, D’Antoni is the polar opposite of those coaches. His Knicks will make it or break it on their own terms. They will be offensively aggressive and will dare you to match them.

“I think we take away a lot,’’ he said. “I told the guys we had 50, 60 more games left, and this was a test. I thought we matched them point for point. We just have to get a little better.’’

If this was indeed a Preview of Coming Atlantic Division Attractions, the good news for Rivers is that, unlike last year, his club will have a little healthy competition. There will be no 27-27 sleepwalk to the finish line this year.

Competition is good. Competition is the American Way. Hey, Knicks, welcome to the race.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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