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Celtics 96, Knicks 86

Celtics tough enough

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 22, 2011

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NEW YORK — For obvious reasons, Doc Rivers did his best to hopscotch around the word. He knew he was dancing around the same grenade that blew up on Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle when he used the word to describe his Mavericks.

Carlisle called his team soft, and one of his best players, Jason Terry, took it as an insult to his manhood.

But what other way could Rivers describe how the first half had played out last night at Madison Square Garden?

The Knicks were throwing blows and leaving bruises. Troy Murphy had blood on his nose to prove it. Carmelo Anthony ripped a rebound down in the first quarter and threw sharp elbows to clear space for himself but in the process dropped Glen Davis after catching him flush in the face.

The Knicks smelled blood mostly because they drew it first.

“I haven’t used the word ‘soft’ with us maybe in four years,’’ Rivers said. “But at halftime, I used that word a lot.’’

The Celtics trailed, 51-37, at halftime, but one small word — and one strong challenge — fueled their 96-86 come-from-behind win.

“We’re all men here,’’ Garnett said. “Even some women, when you call them ‘soft’ and you’re in an aggressive mode, it ain’t what you want to hear at the time. You can’t take that a couple of ways. You take that one way. That’s how we took it.’’

The Celtics were last seen at MSG taking bows on the Knicks’ floor after Paul Pierce hit a last-second dagger in December. Their return had just as much drama, more stars, more action, more elbows, and more blood.

Lots more blood.

“I think everybody was on the floor,’’ Garnett said. “Just Boston-New York. Classic!’’

Ray Allen (15 points) took a Jared Jeffries elbow to the head in the third quarter and blood streamed around his skull. Sitting next to Spike Lee, Allen’s mother Flo had the look of a woman who wanted to know who Jeffries’s parents were. Allen needed seven stitches, before returning in the fourth quarter with a bandage above his right eye.

“It was a bloodbath,’’ Rivers said. “I thought that was beautiful.’’

But Anthony, who had swung his elbows all night — at one point trying to clear out Rajon Rondo and Garnett then asking, ‘You all right?’ — took the biggest blow in the game’s final minutes.

The Celtics had used air-tight second-half defense to snatch control of the game and the Knicks felt everything unhinging. With his team trailing, 88-86, and the Celtics inbounding the ball, Anthony went up for a 50/50 ball with Rondo.

They could have been a free safety and a wide receiver in the back of the end zone.

Anthony caught a stray elbow from Rondo and hit the deck. The Celtics had a five-on-four advantage and Rondo, ever the opportunist, bounced a pass down low to Davis for a layup that put the Celtics up 90-86.

Anthony, who later required five stitches, was still on his knees at half court. Rondo ran into him and fell over backpedaling to play defense. But by then, the Celtics were running away, scoring the last 10 points of the game. The Knicks went without a basket the final 3:28. The Celtics closed on a 23-4 run.

It was the kind of game that should have come with a Larry Merchant monologue afterward.

“Everybody was trying to win,’’ Garnett said. “They’re having issues, we’re having issues. New teams. You can point at what you want, but at the end of the day, everybody was just trying to win. That’s what it was. It felt like a playoff game.’’

The Knicks are 7-9 since dealing for Anthony, who scored 22 points. But the Celtics know there’s a strong chance they could meet in the postseason.

“It would be even more intense, if you could imagine that,’’ Rondo said. “Tonight felt like it was about as intense as it could get. The crowd was into it, a lot of blood. It was a great game tonight. That’s what you get in a playoff series.’’

Garnett went for 24 points and 11 rebounds. The big stage helped Pierce snap out of his slump. He scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter to go with his six rebounds. Rondo put up a 13-point, 12-assist effort.

“Something about this team, we have an extra gear,’’ Pierce said. “We know when we have to turn it up. Sometimes maybe going to the ground, that’s what it takes. I’d rather us start the beginning of the game like we’ve been thrown to the ground, but hey, this is a veteran team that knows how to push a button and get a win.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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