BOSTON -- It was playoff weekend but in this building it felt like the middle of May. These Celtics and Knicks each have a lot of excuses to founder -- midseason trades, uncertain benches, injuries -- but each fed off a rivalry that reminded anyone with a long memory of the greatest games they've ever played against each other.
One play led to and was transcended by the next until a Ray Allen three finished off the Celtics' 87-85 win -- or did it? The Knicks inbounded the ball with 11.6 seconds remaining and Carmelo Anthony hoisted a three of his own from the left side that would hang on the front of the rim. The Celtics had planned to foul Anthony before the shot, but instead gave him the kind of opportunity he craves. "When it left Carmelo's hands,'' said Boston coach Doc Rivers, "I was thinking we got away with it."
What a promising start for both teams. With Shaquille O'Neal dressed funereally in black on their sideline, the Celtics were able to celebrate a 12-point (6-for-6), four-block performance in 23 minutes from center Jermaine O'Neal, who missed 58 games due to knee surgery this season -- but now gives them hope that the post won't be so empty as has been feared since the midseason trade of Kendrick Perkins.
The Knicks, having gone through several identity changes of their own this season, were inspired by the 28 points (on 18 shots) and 11 rebounds of Amar'e Stoudemire. In the fourth quarter he routinely posted up and burst past Kevin Garnett to finish at the rim. The only way to stop him was to deny him the ball, which in turn throttled the Knicks offensively down the stretch as they looked elsewhere for shots.
The Knicks will worry about point guard Chauncey Billups, who said he suffered an apparent quad strain near his left knee that sent him to the bench late in the fourth quarter, and threatens to sideline him Tuesday. Yet Anthony was upbeat. "We're going to look at this game and build on it," he said. "It's not like guys' heads are down. Guys are actually excited about Game 2, they feel they have a chance to win Game 2."
The worst luck turned out well for the Knicks, who watched Anthony earn two fouls in the opening 88 seconds that relegated him to the bench the rest of the first quarter. His absence eased offensive tension between Stoudemire and himself, enabling the former and Billups to play with role players Bill Walker, Ronny Turiaf and Toney Douglas, who fulfilled those roles splendidly. The foul trouble turned Anthony into the Knicks' version of Manu Ginobili, and by the time he came off the bench (while Stoudemire was given a rest of his own) the ball was moving and the Knicks' surprising defense was on its way to limiting the Celtics to 43.8 percent overall from the field while blocking nine of their shots.
The Celtics were down 51-39 at the half and point guard Rajon Rondo had converted more jump shots than assists (two), which was not a good omen. "We were giving them everything -- comfort shots, breaking our defensive rules," said Rivers.
Of course he could have seen this coming. The Spurs and the Lakers -- the only contenders who can rival Boston's experience -- had already suffered opening-game losses as they struggled to develop the caffeinated approach demanded by the postseason. The Celtics ultimately avoided making the same mistake. "Defensively we joined the playoffs in the second half," said Rivers.
For that they can thank their center. "We won the game because of Jermaine O'Neal," said Rivers. They had been meandering along in the third quarter when O'Neal blocked a drive by Anthony and Pierce dived head-first into the Celtics bench to save the loose ball; Boston's backups pulled Pierce to his feet just in time for him to see O'Neal finishing what he started with a smooth midrange jumper to cut New York's lead to 55-47. Soon thereafter O'Neal was blocking another Anthony drive and then drawing a charge to negate a runner by Walker, with the latter play funneling into an Allen three (59-54). That set Allen and Rondo on track -- the former to finish with 24 points, the latter with nine assists as every Boston starter scored in double figures.
"We upped our intensity and it created problems," said Rivers of their second-half defense, which held the Knicks to 32.6 percent (14-of-43) and Anthony to 1-of-11 over the final two quarters. In the final two minutes Pierce would strip Anthony on his way up for a jumper, and then set up Allen's winning three by drawing a foul as Anthony tried to post up near the three-point line with 21 seconds remaining -- a foul that Anthony and coach Mike D'Antoni would question afterwards.
All season long the assumption has been that the Celtics' larger, more famous O'Neal would be their savior in the playoffs after Perkins was dealt for backups Jeff Green (Four points in 17 minutes) and Nenad Krstic (scoreless in five minutes of play). "I think our team was fine, but outside it's going to keep getting talked about," said Rivers. "Perk will probably have a 20-and-20 in the game tonight -- and I actually hope he does, it would be great for him."
Instead Perkins would finish with four points and five rebounds in Oklahoma City's opening 107-103 win over visiting Denver Sunday.
"At the end of the day, this is who we are, this is who we have," said Rivers. "And we're fine. We're ready."
Or at least they're growing ready now that the Knicks are pushing them.