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Celtics 91, Knicks 89

Celtics make a stand

They stop Knicks down the stretch

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By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 4, 2012
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Not even two weeks ago, the Celtics appeared disheveled and filled with self-pity when faced with adversity. During the opening month, the Celtics were plagued by injuries and had little to offer worthy opponents besides intermittent flashes of their previous form.

They didn’t have enough in the fourth quarter, so the Celtics wilted down the stretch of close games.

Despite those bitter visions, this reinvigorated bunch accepted the challenge of a double-digit, second-half deficit last night against the New York Knicks. And although their offense was ragged most of the evening, the Celtics earned a victory in this suddenly rejuvenated rivalry with trademark defense.

Clinging to a 1-point lead - that could have been 4 if not for an official’s review - the Celtics held the Knicks scoreless for the final 1:26, including two possessions in the final 16.1 seconds for a thrilling 91-89 win.

Ray Allen scored 5 straight points for a 90-85 lead with 1:57 left, then the Celtics barely hung on, sending triple teams at Carmelo Anthony and keeping the ball out of the hands of New York’s Big Three in the waning moments.

Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, and Steve Novak took the final three shots for the Knicks. All three missed.

“It was one of those games, I told our guys, two weeks ago we absolutely lose,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “We never established rhythm on either end. But we just hung in there. And in the second half I just thought our defense - we had the one timeout, we were still down like 6, it was frustrating; guys were missing shots, turning the ball over. And I just said, ‘Guys, our defense is bailing us out. Let’s . . . this is going to be a defensive win. And we’re just going to hang in there, and somehow we’re going to steal this.’ And you rarely say you ‘steal a game’ at home, but that’s how it felt. We just hung in there long enough to make plays.’’

The game was not without controversy on a night that included multiple technical fouls on both sides.

Paul Pierce (30 points) appeared to hit a 3-pointer with the 24-second clock winding down after having the ball slapped from his hands by Shumpert with 14.4 seconds left in the game. He drained the improbable shot to the delight of the TD Garden crowd for an apparent 4-point lead, but officials delayed the game a couple of minutes to review the close call.

The 3-pointer was overruled, although Comcast SportsNet showed an angle that appeared to indicate Pierce released at 0.1 on the 24-second clock. The Knicks were awarded the ball down, 90-89, with 16.1 seconds remaining and neither of their perennial all-star players - Anthony or Amar’e Stoudemire - got off a shot.

Instead the Celtics forced Anthony to swing the ball to Shumpert, who passed to Fields, who missed a 17-footer from the baseline. Pierce got the rebound and was fouled but missed the second free throw, giving the Knicks one chance to tie or win.

The defense held up again as Fields inbounded the ball with 4.2 seconds left to Novak, whose long 2-pointer missed badly at the buzzer, giving the Celtics their seventh win in eight games after a 5-9 start.

“For one, they denied myself the ball,’’ said Stoudemire (16 points, 11 rebounds), who did not score for the final 8:24. “[Kevin] Garnett, every time we play the Celtics, he denies. Then they sent the double team at Carmelo and it makes it tough for guys to get it going. Other than that we had a chance to win. We turned the ball over a little bit down the stretch. Those guys came back and converted. That team is going to take advantage of any mishaps out there.’’

A 7-0 spurt to end the third quarter changed the complexion of the game, and the Celtics spent the fourth quarter chasing down the weary Knicks, who suffered an emotional loss to the Chicago Bulls the night before. Rivers implemented a defense that took the ball out of Anthony’s hands and he sat Rajon Rondo for a majority of the period in favor of Avery Bradley’s pressure of Shumpert.

Rondo, who missed the previous eight games with a sprained right wrist, returned with 5:26 left and immediately drew a loose-ball foul on Shumpert after stripping the ball near the sideline. He finished with 7 points, 7 assists and 5 turnovers in 34 minutes, although his teammates mishandled many of his passes.

With Tyson Chandler in foul trouble, the Celtics’ big men suddenly found rebounds attainable. Brandon Bass’s two free throws cut the deficit to 77-75 with 8:24 left and Chris Wilcox, after being fouled on an offensive rebound, sank two free throws to even the game with 7:43 to go.

Before the Celtics’ surge, Anthony showed the same form he had in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff last spring when he dropped 42 points at TD Garden. He scored 9 points in the period, including a streaking layup and free throw for a 72-62 lead with 2:04 left in the third qarter.

Previously, the Celtics likely would have folded, but Wilcox (6 points, four rebounds) sparked the 7-0 quarter-ending run and they maintained that execution into the fourth.

“It’s good when you find ways to win. Things weren’t really going our way, we didn’t put our heads down, we just kept grinding,’’ Pierce said.

“The defense started to kick in, that was key. We just kept sticking to it and found a way. Sometimes it’s going to be nights like that, such a long season, so many games, you got to find ways to win and that’s what we did.’’

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