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Knicks polished off, but it wasn’t easy

By Gary Washburn
April 25, 2011

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NEW YORK — A Celtics team that always finds ways to make life harder for itself did it again yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

Yet following a Knicks run that reduced a 23-point lead to 84-80 with 7:35 left and put the Madison Square Garden crowd in a frenzy, we found out what separates this Celtics team from the one that lumbered and stumbled the last few weeks of the regular season.

This crew finished off the Knicks, responding by ending the game on a 17-9 run, standing strong when New York’s two All-Stars were scoring at will and when Anthony Carter decided to play his Earl Morrall role.

And by withstanding New York’s one final charge in its bizarre season, the Celtics did themselves a huge favor. They earned two days off and a week of rest before their anticipated showdown series with the Heat.

The Celtics are best when they rest, and since the Big Three Era, they have done a poor job closing out series, going 9-11 when they had an opportunity to finish off a playoff opponent. And that includes those final two losses to the Lakers in last year’s Finals that placed added urgency on this season.

Seven days between games gives coach Doc Rivers an opportunity to rest his aging players, conduct three full practices, and give Shaquille O’Neal even more time to heal from his calf injury. The Celtics haven’t attempted to rush O’Neal back to action and they really didn’t need him against the undersized Knicks, but they will against the Heat.

What Rivers learned from throwing O’Neal on the court April 3 against the Pistons is that the big man’s body no longer responds favorably to game action without proper practice time. And Rivers would love to get O’Neal two workouts before he returns again. He already has participated in a couple of shootarounds, but the Celtics have six days to get O’Neal into playing condition and it appears they will need every moment.

What sounded like rhetoric after a difficult end to the regular season is now ringing true. The Celtics are a better team when they only have to prepare for one opponent and when there are days off between games and when they get proper practice time.

So they should be finely tuned when they head to South Beach while the Heat have to wait until Wednesday to potentially eliminate the 76ers. The Celtics did not want to drag themselves back to Boston for a Game 5 and give the hobbling Knicks any hope. And Rivers rewarded his team with today and tomorrow off after this brief but physical series.

“We gotta a lot of work [to do], a lot of work,’’ center Jermaine O’Neal said. “We’re not even halfway there yet. It’s good to win, but we have much bigger plans than winning one round.’’

And Rivers now has six days to prepare for the Heat after that April 10 debacle in Miami. The Heat have made some adjustments since losing the first three meetings to the Celtics, especially defensively, and point guard Mike Bibby’s perimeter shooting has allowed the Heat’s version of the Big Three to spread the floor and flourish.

Rivers is a mastermind when he has time to prepare, such as last year when he devised effective game plans to contain Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard, respectively.

The Celtics expected a long, grueling series with the Knicks, but New York couldn’t stay healthy or consistently play defense, and Boston regained its fleeting confidence in the last two games. So the Celtics will hit the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena focused, rested, and motivated.

“I think time and practice,’’ was guard Rajon Rondo’s response when asked why the Celtics suddenly have turned into a consistently executing team. “Doc shortened the playbook as well, so guys knew exactly what we were running out there on the court. We have basically kept it simple. We haven’t swept a team in a long time. It’s a good feeling.’’

Now it’s up to the Celtics to use this time constructively. This wildly inconsistent team sometimes doesn’t thrive unless faced with adversity. The Celtics barely won the first two games of this series, and then headed to New York and whipped the Knicks twice in front of a raucous enemy crowd.

The Celtics have found their rhythm, but the veteran players are realistic about their ability to lose it just as easily during this respite.

“We make story lines either way,’’ Ray Allen warned. “You can talk about going from one series to the next series without rest and having a good rhythm or you could have too much time off. You could look at it either way, but I think for us the rest is good. Either way, if it’s good for us, we’ll talk ourselves into it whether we have no rest or got plenty of it. It’s all mental.’’

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

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