THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Sky high after they earn a hard-fought victory

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / April 20, 2011

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All those years, all those playoff series, and we’ve never seen anything like this around here.

One playoff game in which the visitor leads late, real late, and loses? Sure. It happens. You know, you can’t win ’em all. But two of these things in the same series, and not only that, but Games 1 and 2, leaving the visitors beyond frustration and the coach of the Celtics almost apologizing for being up, 2-0? We’ve entered virgin series territory.

Doc Rivers looked as if he had just run the Marathon — with a Steinway on his back. It’s been a long time since a winning Celtics coach was so completely and utterly subdued when his team was up, 2-0.

“We won the game,’’ he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. “In the playoffs, the whole key is to win games, and that’s what we did.’’

The Team That Finds A Way needed alternating bursts of energy from its fabled Big Three to pull out last night’s 96-93 hair-raiser over a Knicks team that began the game without starting point guard Chauncey Billups and ended it without All-Everything Amar’e Stoudemire, who did not play in the second half because of back spasms. Ray Allen was 4 for 4 from 3-point territory. Paul Pierce crammed 12 of his 20 points into the third period, when the Celtics were able to stretch the lead to 11 (74-63).

And then there was Kevin Garnett, who had rebounded effectively all night, but who was a well-earned 5 for 15 from the floor when he was given the ball, down 1 (93-92), with about 16 seconds remaining and asked to do what he so often resists doing — take the big shot. He calmly backed Jared Jeffries down and swished a difficult spinning jump hook from the middle of the lane, giving the Celtics a 94-93 lead with 13.3 seconds left.

Garnett then put the game away when he reached out to intercept a Jeffries inside-out pass intended for Bill Walker (at 0 for 11, one might ask why?), creating a turnover with 4.4 seconds to go.

More Knicks confusion: After the ball was inbounded, Delonte West was allowed to dribble unimpeded until he finally was fouled by Carmelo Anthony at the 0.6-second mark. Not exactly the urgency you need.

Wasted in all this was a spectacular virtuoso effort by Anthony, who submitted a dazzling 42-point, 17-rebound, 6-assist stat line, and whose outrageous fadeaway 3-pointer in front of the Celtics bench had given the Knicks a 91-88 lead with 2:37 remaining.

But as dynamic as Melo was, there was an equally electrifying performer on the floor. You can kind of guess that if Rajon Rondo finishes with 30, most of them have to be on the flashy side. And they were.

He was at his slashing best, taking it to the hoop at will from start to finish, personally giving the Celtics a transition game. He made 12 layups of varying description, in transition and in the halfcourt, before burying a jumper that made it 88-86 with 4:37 to play. At one point in the fourth quarter he scored on three consecutive drives in 1:10 as the teams were engaged in a tense circumstance in which the biggest lead for either side in the final 10 minutes was 3.

“I think I tried to attack in Game 1,’’ Rondo said, “just my layups were getting blocked, and I didn’t make a couple. But tonight I made them. I stayed aggressive. I tried to expose them, because I didn’t think they did a great job of getting back into transition.’’

The major reason for Rivers’s anguish, aside from the nightmare of defending Anthony, was the fact that New York was able to stay in the game despite shooting 36 percent thanks to a complete domination of the offensive glass. New York had 20 offensive rebounds, good for 24 second-chance points. Boston had nine and 6.

Rivers attributed much of this to his team’s need to trap with frequency, thus leaving themselves one man shy. But 24-6? Nah. There was something else going on.

“It’s all effort, putting bodies on people,’’ said Pierce.

Neither of these games has been what you would call pretty, but they have been loaded with effort on both sides. No matter what the Celtics did, the Knicks would not allow any permanent separation, closing the first period on an 8-0 run and then erasing that 74-63 deficit late in the third with a 13-2 overlap spurt that tied it at 76.

“It was a game of runs, truthfully,’’ said Pierce. “One team would make a run, and it turned into an old-fashioned bar fight.’’ The Celtics are up, 2-0, but it’s taken a lot of work. Rivers knows just how much the Knicks will be energized when they take the floor Friday night in New York. If the Celtics don’t play better than this, they’ll be the 10th Celtics team to come home 2-2 after leaving town 2-0 in a seven-game series.

Ever honest, Rivers said out loud what’s on the minds of fans in both cities. “We were lucky to win,’’ he said.

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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