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On Basketball

No upsetting developments here

By Gary Washburn
April 18, 2011

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The Celtics didn’t exactly turn it up for their playoff opener. Doc Rivers’s squad was the same lethargic club that labored into the postseason during the second quarter of last night’s victory over the Knicks at TD Garden.

The fact that this was the playoffs, the building was rocking, and Bill Belichick smiled more than he did in three postgame Super Bowl news conferences meant nothing to the Celtics. Lethargy and complacency were their characteristics of choice.

And it shouldn’t come as a surprise the Celtics got caught off guard. The Lakers and Spurs were punched in the mouth yesterday by lower seeds a day after the Bulls and Heat fought to survive their openers and the Magic were dumped at home.

What is encouraging about Boston’s 87-85 triumph is it was able to recover and get the victory, regardless of whether it was stolen, given, gift-wrapped, or selected from the Saks Fifth Avenue registry. It didn’t really matter.

What we have learned in the last 48 hours is that lower seeds are not to be overlooked. Those clubs all might as well be coached by Shaka Smart and wear black and gold. They are all Virginia Commonwealths, underrated teams with skilled players who are motivated by the renewed opportunity of the postseason.

The Knicks realize they are the prohibitive underdogs, but with two All-Stars in their prime and one former All-Star capable of making big plays, they were determined to dominate the Celtics, especially when Glen Davis ran off his mouth and told media that Amar’e Stoudemire “is really not that hard’’ to defend.

Stoudemire went off for 28 points, taking Kevin Garnett off the dribble for a picturesque up-and-under layup and then a dunk on the helping Jermaine O’Neal. And when Chauncey Billups drained a 3-pointer — that’s why he’s Mr. Big Shot — for a 78-75 lead with 4:15 left, it seemed Boston would be another Game 1 victim.

The Celtics rallied in the third quarter with defense and prevailed with defense and astute play calling from Rivers. Instead of being discouraged, the Celtics responded to the Knicks’ challenge with better execution, which is what separated them from the Magic, Spurs, and Lakers.

It’s inaccurate to say the Celtics stole one. They didn’t win on a fluke or improbable rally. When they trailed, 82-78, with 2:16 left, Stoudemire drove the baseline for perhaps a clinching score only to slam into O’Neal for a critical charge call.

After a Paul Pierce jumper cut the deficit to 2, he stripped the ball from Anthony and O’Neal evened the score by dropping in a layup. The Celtics’ defense finally stepped to the forefront and made a difference, and that’s more skill than luck.

What’s more, the Celtics stymied the Knicks in the second half. New York shot 32.6 percent in the final 24 minutes and excluding Stoudemire, the Knicks were 7 for 33 shooting for 18 points. The Celtics earned that tough March 21 victory in New York in identical fashion, holding the Knicks to 31 percent shooting and just 35 points in the second half.

The Celtics have struggled with first-round opponents in the past, and they were ripe for an upset last night, but what we saw from this team is something that has been sorely missing the past few weeks.

“We’ve been together a while, man. We are a veteran ball club,’’ Pierce said. “The whole thing was about our fourth-quarter execution. We haven’t really been particularly well executing in the fourth quarter; tonight was one of our better fourth-quarter execution games. Regardless of how many shots we missed or we were down, it’s all about our defense and our execution down the stretch and we were able to do that. Regardless of how bad we were shooting or how bad we were playing defense I thought down the stretch we found a way to win and that was because of our experience.’’

Last night was a rough draft the Celtics can build on for Game 2 and beyond. They were inconsistent. Rajon Rondo recorded just two assists in 19 first-half minutes. Davis attempted too many jumpers for a bench that converted just 4 of 15 shots in the game.

But those numbers are inconsequential. Game 1s are the most dangerous of a series. It’s the game that underdogs use to build momentum and confidence. It’s the game in which favorites begin to doubt themselves. Perhaps if Ray Allen doesn’t drain that winning 3-pointer with 11.6 seconds left, the Celtics are lamenting missed opportunities and pondering first-round elimination as the Magic, Spurs, and Lakers are.

But Allen did hit it and the Celtics now have 48 hours to adjust for New York’s next challenge. That’s a position they’ll relish until tomorrow night.

“What was interesting was what we saw yesterday and today, you see the teams on the road playing good basketball so I’m sure New York comes in here thinking the same thing, [but] we still won Game 1,’’ Allen said. “You definitely have to protect against that. You’ve got to be proactive when you are out there on the court. You have to go out there to play the game; you’ve got to go out there to win it.’’

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

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