Not like this.
Against New York.
No, the Celtics wouldn’t conclude their season on such nightmarish terms.
But then a general unease began to work its way through Celtics fans at TD Garden late Sunday afternoon, as their team blew a 20-point lead in Game 4, as their key players edged closer to fouling out, and as Knicks star Carmelo Anthony poured in basket after basket.
It was going to end like this.
Fate, acceptance, reality — it all started to settle in, as what had unfolded in this playoff series’ previous games played out yet again, for the fourth time.
Yet the Celtics refused.
Their 35-and-older trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, to be more specific, refused. And they carried the team late, with Terry scoring 9 straight points to end the overtime session and seal the Celtics’ heart-stopping 97-90 win against the New York Knicks.
Game 5 is Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the Knicks will hold a 3-1 series lead in this Eastern Conference best-of-seven first-round playoff.
“Now we have to go into a hostile environment and they’re going to be trying to get it over with,’’ said Terry, who scored 18 points off the bench.
“They don’t want to come back here, but we do.’’
If the Celtics win Wednesday, they’ll return to Boston for Game 6 Friday night at TD Garden. No NBA playoff team has come back from a 3-0 series deficit, so the Celtics are fighting history. But what they have now is, at the very least, confidence that they can beat these Knicks.
And it took 53 hard-earned minutes before that feeling set in.
The Celtics built a 19-point lead at halftime, but in the third quarter, their offense turned into sludge, as it often has in this series: Raymond Felton outscored the Celtics that frame, 16-14.
The Knicks guard was incredible, scoring 12 points in the final 3:35 of the quarter, including hitting a 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds left that cut Boston’s lead to 3 entering the fourth.
“Good teams are going to make those runs,’’ said Garnett, who had 13 points, 17 rebounds, and 6 assists in 37 minutes. “It’s deflating, but we kept fighting. We found a way to get over the hump.’’
Felton gave the Knicks their first lead on a jumper with 1:18 left in the fourth. Pierce missed a jumper that could have won the Celtics the game in regulation.
That is when the unease started to spread among the fans, especially because by the start of the extra session, all five Celtics starters had at least three fouls, and Brandon Bass, who had hounded Anthony throughout the game, was gone with six fouls.
“He was the star of the game, as far as I’m concerned,’’ coach Doc Rivers said of Bass. “He just defended, and did it over and over and over again.’’
Then Pierce hit a jumper to open overtime.
Felton, who finished with 27 points, answered with a driving bank shot.
Then Garnett hit a jumper.
Anthony, who scored a game-high 36 on 35 field-goal attempts, responded with two free throws.
And Terry came up his biggest shot of the season, nailing a pull-up 3-pointer in transition that turned Celtics fans delirious and helped quiet the throngs of Knicks fans who invaded TD Garden.
“There were a lot of Knicks fans in here,’’ Terry said. “That’s just something — it was a closeout game and they take over our building. Not our building. So that kinda fueled me up.’’
Anthony sank a jumper on the other end, but Terry got the ball on the Celtics’ next possession and hit a short fadeaway jumper.
“He was huge,’’ Garnett said. “He was bigger than anybody today.’’
And Boston led, 93-90, with 50.4 seconds left.
Anthony missed a 3-pointer, the rebound went wide, and Steve Novak went over Terry’s back trying to corral it. Foul. Terry made both free throws. Ballgame.
“They were fighting for dear life,’’ Anthony said. “They showed some heart out there.’’
Knicks coach Mike Woodson wouldn’t use the absence of sparkplug guard J.R. Smith as an excuse. Smith sat after the NBA suspended him for elbowing Terry in the face in Game 3.
He’ll be back for Game 5.
Terry, meanwhile, said the elbow Smith threw, the one that Terry said gave him motivation heading into the game, “still hurts.’’
“As long as I feel that,’’ Terry added, “I’ll be thinking about it.’’
Jeff Green scored 26 points and handled the ball plenty for the Celtics, who had 16 turnovers that New York turned into 18 points.
There was the legitimate question entering the game if it would be the last for both Pierce and Garnett, who may both be pondering retirement. That question is delayed, at least one more game.
Pierce, who scored 29 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and had 6 assists in 50 minutes, believed the series would go back to New York – and said he called friends there to make dinner plans.
“Hopefully this is something we can build on,’’ Pierce said.
Garnett said the Celtics finally backed up all their talk about playing with intensity and desperation, which they hadn’t done in the series’ first three games.
Why did it happen Sunday?
“This is it, you’re down 3-0, what else is there to say?’’ Garnett asked.
Said Terry, “This is the first time that we really came out with fire in our eyes. Every game from here on out is Game 7 for us.’’
It was but one game, and the mountain these Celtics must scale is historically steep.
But they are alive, which is all that mattered by game’s end, when they delayed their demise for at least one more night and avoided an embarrassing exit that would linger all offseason.