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Dan Shaughnessy

Already, memorable moments

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 18, 2011

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Think they can top this one? Can you stand eight weeks of this?

We’d love to try.

The NBA playoffs exploded in Boston last night and the Celtics kicked off their drive for banner No. 18 with an 87-85 comeback victory over the Knicks. Ray Allen won the game with a stake-driving 3-pointer from 24 feet with 11.6 seconds left, but the outcome wasn’t decided until Carmelo Anthony’s three hit the front rim in the chaotic closing seconds.

At the finish, both teams were out of timeouts and 18,624 fans were emotionally spent. This was one terrific playoff game, featuring 14 ties, nine lead changes, and a galaxy of stars.

“Even though we didn’t play our best basketball, we found a way,’’ said Celtics captain Paul Pierce.

New York led the Celtics by as many as 12 points, but when it comes to Celtics-Knicks in 2010-11, there’s always a feeling that the Knicks will cough it up in the end. They did.

Meanwhile, the Celtics got a boost from the most unlikely of heroes: Jermaine O’Neal.

He’s not Kendrick Perkins. He’s not Shaquille O’Neal. He’s not even Artis Gilmore in the final days. But for one night Jermaine found the old mojo that made him a dominant player for the Pacers many years ago. In his best 23 minutes as a Celtic, O’Neal made 6 of 6 shots, had four spectacular blocks, grabbed three offensive rebounds, and drew a couple of key charges. On a night when Allen scored 24 points and Kevin Garnett grabbed 13 rebounds, O’Neal was Boston’s Jermaine Man.

“We won the game because of Jermaine O’Neal,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “That’s it. His defensive presence, shot-blocking, rebounding, toughness. He did it all at both ends.’’

Like any Boston-New York duel, there is considerable history to Celtics-Knicks. This is the 14th time they’ve matched up since 1951. Amazingly, it’s the first Celtics-Knicks series since 1990, when the Celtics lost a fifth and deciding game at home. The key play of that game was a missed dunk by (of all people) Larry Bird. That’s right, ladies and gents, Larry Legend tried to throw one down, but back-rimmed it and the Celtics wound up losing, 121-114. Bird’s clunker was perhaps the beginning of the Great Decline.

It was a different story when the Celtics and Knicks dueled in 1984. Boston won that epic seven-game conference semifinal when Bird took over Game 7, submitting one of his greatest performances (39 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists). The series forever will be the highlight of Hubie Brown’s estimable coaching career. It is also remembered as the series that started off with some emotion when Cedric Maxwell looked at Bernard King’s 40-point playoff average and announced, “No way the bitch is going to get 40 off me.’’ King refused to shake Max’s hand before the opening jump and didn’t score 40 until the fourth game of the series. He went off for 44 in Game 6.

“How many did he get in Game 7,’’ Max asked last night.

King scored 24 in the finale.

The odor of upsets was in the air when the Celtics and Knicks came out to renew hostilities. We’d already seen the Magic, Spurs, and Lakers lose opening games on their home courts.

“I don’t think any of those teams weren’t ready,’’ said Rivers.

“Guys don’t need any motivation,’’ promised Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. “This seems like a conference final, not a first-round game.’’

Pregame babble included more of the ridiculous notion of Shaq somehow playing in this series or actually helping the Celtics. The Diesel has played all of five minutes since Feb. 1, yet folks still talk about him as if he’s among the living. Rivers has not ruled Shaq out of Game 2 tomorrow night. It’s also possible that Bill Russell or Robert Parish might dress for the game.

The Knicks led, 51-39, at intermission. It was a bit shocking, but Celtics fans were heartened by the memory of March 21 at Madison Square Garden, when the Knicks blew a 15-point lead, choked down the stretch, and lost to the Celtics by 10.

The predictable Knicks meltdown came early this time and amazingly, the man who hurt the Knicks most was Jermaine O’Neal. Oft-injured, and generally maligned — he was the worst player in the Celtics-Heat series last year — O’Neal tapped into the Way Back Machine. He blocked shots, converted at the offensive end, and drew a critical charge as the Celtics rallied to within 3. With Shaq in civvies and Perkins in Oklahoma City, it was a welcome sight. Ever pushovers against their Boston cousins, the Knicks just stood back and let it all be.

Trailing by 3 with 37 seconds left, the Celtics pulled off a stunning inbounded alley-oop dunk, Rajon Rondo to KG. After a dubious offensive foul call on Anthony, Pierce made the key pass to set up Allen’s winning trey. Then we all watched Anthony’s attempt to win it.

“I think I was guarding Carmelo,’’ said Rivers. “When it left Carmelo’s hands, I was thinking, ‘Wow’. We got away with one.’’

“I still feel we should have come out with the win,’’ said Knicks veteran Chauncey Billups, who strained his left knee late in the game. “That’s one that got away.’’

Anthony agreed.

“I missed some shots I normally make,’’ said the Knicks’ overrated ball hog, who went 5 for 18. “I had a chance to make a three and I missed it. But they didn’t do nothing special. They did what they are supposed to do, win the first game at home. But our guys are excited about Game 2. We’re playing with a confidence level.’’

Maybe. But the Celtics always get away with it when it’s against the Knicks.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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