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Celtics 96, Knicks 93

Star power

Anthony a bright light for Knicks but Garnett, Celtics shine at end

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 20, 2011

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It’s a league of stars.

That’s the reason every NBA franchise that can is throwing dollars around trying to create three-star constellations. That’s the reason the Knicks did calculus with their salary cap to sign Amar’e Stoudemire in the offseason, and why they did contortions with their roster to trade for Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups just before the deadline.

It’s also the reason they still, somehow, had a puncher’s chance in last night’s 96-93 Game 2 loss to the Celtics at TD Garden even though Billups started the game on the bench with a sore left knee, and Stoudemire went to the locker room at the half hampered by back spasms.

Still, when word eventually made it to the Celtics bench that Stoudemire wouldn’t return, coach Doc Rivers looked over to his assistant, Lawrence Frank, and said, “They’ve got us right where they want us right now.’’

Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni told Anthony in a timeout that Stoudemire wasn’t returning. After that, he didn’t have to say a word.

“Damn,’’ Anthony said. “Another one of our guys is gone.’’

He was the last star standing for the Knicks.

“It was pretty obvious at that point we were going to him every time and he was going to play the whole second half,’’ D’Antoni said.

Anthony fired a 25-foot 3-point arrow from in front of the Celtics bench that gave him 42 points, matching his career postseason high and giving the Knicks a 91-88 lead.

But the Knicks were facing a Celtics team with future Hall of Famers to spare.

Anthony didn’t score again, the Celtics got a go-ahead hook shot from Kevin Garnett with 13.3 seconds left, and then Garnett hit the floor to smother a loose ball that sealed their win.

The Celtics had options all over the floor. Anthony was a one-man operation. No other Knick scored more than the 14 points of Toney Douglas, Billups’s understudy.

Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo scored a career playoff-high 30 points (and 14 of the Celtics’ first 18) to go with 7 assists and 4 rebounds. Paul Pierce scored 20 points and Ray Allen added 18 as the Celtics took a two-games-to-none lead in the first-round series.

“They’re good at it,’’ D’Antoni said. “They’ve been together for a while and they understand what they have. They’ve just got so many weapons and it’s tough.’’

The Celtics didn’t stop Anthony as much as they withstood him. Only three other players in the past four years have gone for 40 points on the Celtics in a playoff game (Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Ben Gordon). By the end of the night, with the game on the line, Rivers had no other choice but to double-team Anthony, sending Glen Davis his way to deny him any daylight.

It killed Rivers to do that, but he felt he had no choice.

“He was going to make the shot,’’ Rivers said. “He was making everything else.’’

After drilling a 3-pointer that put the Knicks ahead, 48-44, in the third quarter, Anthony (14 for 30, with 17 rebounds) decided to fire up another one from deep, but he failed his own heat check.

Then the Celtics offense warmed up, going on a 12-3 run, torching the Knicks the rest of the quarter.

The Celtics knocked down 12 of their 18 shots in the third, Pierce going 5 for 6, while the Knicks offense stalled, missing 12 of 17.

Without Stoudemire, the Knicks all but evacuated the paint. Their only basket inside in the third quarter was an Anthony putback midway through.

But the Celtics played with fire by not closing out quarters. The Knicks ended the first quarter on an 8-0 run that erased a 10-point deficit (Anthony converting two 3-point plays). Then, with the Celtics up 11 with 44.7 seconds left in the third, Anthony drilled a 20-footer, then knocked down two free throws, pulling the Knicks within a manageable 74-67 entering the fourth.

“He tried to pull it off,’’ said Allen. “It’s almost one of those situations where if you’re on the floor long enough and you take enough shots, the team’s going to follow you and he caught a rhythm where it was tough to stop him. He was making tough shots and everybody was getting open.’’

Still the Knicks go back to New York having to swallow the fact that they squandered two chances to steal games on the road, while the Celtics are thinking about the possibility of closing out the series at Madison Square Garden.

Left to do it on his own, Anthony, the superstar the Knicks signed to a three-year, $65 million extension, couldn’t cash in.

“He’s an incredible player,’’ Pierce said. “That’s why you pay him the big bucks. But at the end of the day, I’m happy we came out with a win.’’

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

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