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Dan Shaughnessy

An entertaining package to open on Christmas

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 26, 2011
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NEW YORK - It looks like the Jets are out of the way, but brace yourself for some weeks, maybe months, of chest-thumping from your obnoxious friends from New York. Make way for the Big Apple Frauds. The Knicks think they are finally better than the Celtics.

In a Holiday Festival that was everything David Stern could have wanted to cure post-lockout stress disorder, the “all-new,’’ muscle-flexing Knicks squeaked out a 106-104 victory against the Paul Pierce-less Celtics yesterday at Madison Square Garden.

Playing in front of Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and a raft of B-list celebs (Matthew Modine, anyone?), the Knicks blew a 17-point first-half lead at home, and needed every ounce of luck and strength to beat the Celtics, who were playing without their best player.

But still, Knicks fans will find reason to believe. That’s the way it is when you still have a “1952 Eastern Division champion’’ flag hanging from your rafters. You cling to anything.

Opening Day evaluations are ever-flawed and it’s impossible to measure the Celtics when Pierce is wearing a Wall Street suit. But this was better for the Celtics than we thought it would be.

They shot 51 percent from the floor. They outrebounded the Knicks, 41-31. That effected a 27-point turnaround. Reserve forward Brandon Bass (20 points, 11 rebounds) looked like an upgrade from Big Baby, and Rajon Rondo (31 points, 13 assists) reminded you why you’re glad he wasn’t traded.

“I thought we played well,’’ said coach Doc Rivers. “There were some breakdowns overall, but for two teams that didn’t have a lot of practice, both teams shot the ball extremely well. I was pretty happy with us.’’

The last time the Celtics played here on Dec. 25 was in 1985, when Kevin McHale skipped the team’s Christmas Eve flight, electing to spend Christmas morning with his wife and kids in Weston. While his teammates had breakfast in their Manhattan hotel, McHale opened presents with his children, then hopped the mid-morning shuttle from Logan to LaGuardia.

The Celtics wound up blowing a 25-point lead, losing to the Knicks in double overtime, on national television. It was considered a turning point in the championship season, which precipitated the Big Green Drought from 1986-2008.

Those were the days when the Celtics took no prisoners and the Knicks knew they were inferior. Not anymore. Now they have Tyson Chandler to go with ball-hog Carmelo Anthony (37 points) and Amar’e Stoudemire (21), there is local hope that the Knicks have vaulted past their traditional tormentors from Boston.

Clearly, health is going to be an issue for both teams. The Boston starting lineup is older than dirt, with four thirtysomething veterans. We worry that Jermaine O’Neal will calcify in mid-game (Rivers thought he looked “slow’’ yesterday), and Messrs. Garnett and Allen are almost certainly in their final year in Green. So it hurts when Pierce (bruised right heel) can’t make the opener after a seven-month layoff. What happens when the Celtics have to go on an eight-game road trip in March?

And the Knicks, swept in the playoffs by the Celtics last spring, are better than they were last year.

“New York should be mentioned as one of the favorites,’’ acknowledged Rivers. “They’re very much like the Lakers. Their 5-4-3 players are very long. New York is vastly improved.’’

So is their home gym, the oldest arena (1968) in the NBA.

New York sports fans were still buzzing from Saturday’s Giants-Jets brawl in the Meadowlands, and some were ill-prepared for their first look at the “new’’ Madison Square Garden arena lower bowl. The world’s most famous arena is undergoing a three-year upgrade/renovation; it looks different, and the infamous midcourt “tunnel’’ is gone.

This is a big loss. Old-school New Englanders no doubt remember when the Celtics and their opponents emerged from the same midcourt tunnel at the old Boston Garden. It led to some magical moments when players were coming on and going off the court through the years. Same deal in New York, where the tunnel was fondly known as “The Willis Reed Tunnel,’’ in memory of the night the Knicks center limped out to the court to help defeat the Lakers in the 1970 Finals.

“I’ve been to some college games here this year, and the first thing I looked for was the tunnel,’’ said Rivers, who played for the Knicks from 1992-95. “My favorite tunnel nights were the wins. I had a bad tunnel night in Game 5 [conference final loss to the Bulls in ’93]. That was not very good.’’

The visitors locker room has been upgraded since the Celtics swept the Knicks last spring, and players enjoyed their spacious new digs. Some were happy to see a red swag bag from the NBA in each locker. There was a set of headphones in every bag.

What is it about headphones and ownership guilt? When the 2011 Chicken-and-Beer Red Sox complained about playing a late-season day-night doubleheader, they were treated to a night on John Henry’s yacht and a complimentary set of headphones. The gesture was widely mocked. So what are we to make of the NBA trying to show some sweetness after a 161-day lockout that cut each player’s 2011-12 salary by 19.5 percent?

Commissioner David Stern was not seen on 7th and 33rd, (he made trips to openers in Dallas and Oklahoma City), but he sent veteran referee Joey Crawford, who made his presence felt, T-ing up two Celtics (Sasha Pavlovic and O’Neal) in the fourth quarter.

Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and president Danny Ainge were also among the missing. Co-owner Steve Pagliuca represented the Celtics’ brass and said he likes his new team.

“I feel like we have a deep team that will benefit from the back-to-back games,’’ said Pagliuca. “I think our new bench will benefit from its athleticism.’’

Did he ever doubt the season would be played?

“I always had faith we’d be here today,’’ said Pagliuca. “I was just hoping it would be Christmas Day, not later.’’

He had a front-row seat for a highly entertaining game that looked overtime-worthy until Garnett’s 14-footer missed just before the horn sounded. Garnett got tangled up with former Celtics benchwarmer Bill Walker as the game ended.

Even though we had no overtime, no brawl, and no Celtic victory, this opener gave us a stocking stuffed with entertainment.

Welcome back, NBA.

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

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