NEW YORK -- The first Madison Square Garden playoff game in seven years was supposed to be a celebration of revival, and that's what it became. The Celtics made the revival theirs. They stole the night away from the Knicks, just as the big so do to the little. They threw the first punch, they taunted and humiliated, and then they finished the 113-96 win in ruthless fashion.
"You know that this is going to happen,'' said coach Mike D'Antoni on Friday after his Knicks fell 3-0 in this opening series. "They are going to explode. Their great players played great tonight.''
The Knicks had viewed Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo as crucial to their long-shot hopes. They'd almost won the two games in Boston by forcing him to score more than he created for others, but that dream was buried when Rondo began the fourth quarter already with a triple-double in hand. When he produces numbers akin to the 15 points, 11 rebounds and 20 assists he created in Game 3, the Celtics look like the NBA Finalists they've been for two of the last three years. For the first time in weeks they looked capable of beating anybody.
Boston doesn't need to make statements, but the rest of the league -- including Miami, which will hold home-court advantage into its likely second-round meeting against the C's -- had better pay attention to the 38 points (14-of-19 from the floor, including 6-of-8 from three-point range) from Paul Pierce and the 32 (8-of-11 threes) by Ray Allen. Boston made 58.3 percent of its 24 triples and outrebounded the Knicks 43-33 after failing miserably on the boards in Game 2.
The Celtics' season-ending 10-11 record looks like the consequences of boredom, but they won't be bored against Miami just as they were inspired by the setting of this game. Their coach, in turn, was happy to find their inspiration so very narrowly focused. "I usually don't talk about where we're playing,'' said Doc Rivers, who made a point of discussing the setting before this game. "My concern was this was not entertainment. This was a competition. I thought we came with that mentality, because this is the one thing this place can do to you -- you come in here to put on a show and then you get your tail kicked. I thought we came in here to play team basketball, and everyone did that.''
The Knicks' collapse provided a revealing context for their previous two losses. Instead of dwelling on their inability to convert those road games into victories, they should instead be lauded for earning any kind of chance to win either one of them. With Chauncey Billups suffering a strained knee at the end of Game 1 that is likely to sideline him until next season, and with back spasms preventing Amar'e Stoudemire from playing the second half of Game 2 and limiting him to seven points and three rebounds in 33 painful minutes of Game 3, it now looks more amazing than ever to think the Knicks ever could have stayed within range of the Celtics.
The biggest stage belongs to the biggest stars, and by that count Boston entered this game with four stars compared to the 1 1/2 of New York. Stoudemire, having been unable to pull on his socks or tie his shoes without sharp pain over the previous two days, warmed up before the game to chants of "M-V-P" from the early crowd gathered courtside. He responded with two thumbs up as he shuffled off the court, but he was stiff then and stiffer while failing to get the ball to the rim on the Knicks' first two possessions.
Injured Willis Reed didn't win Game 7 so much as he inspired his teammates to win the 1970 Finals. In this unfortunate reprisal. Stoudemire would quickly realize there was no one left to inspire, not with the Celtics loading up on Carmelo Anthony (4-of-16 for 15 points), Landry Fields going 1-for-5 and Jared Jeffries unable to catch or convert several layups. This has been a terrific year for the Knicks, who established Stoudemire's leadership while raising the value of enough role players to leverage a midseason trade for Anthony. To expect anything more of this fatigued roster is to insist on too much.
The Celtics, on the other hand, require more improvement from their bench, as their entire second unit was in the red in terms of plus-minus (with Glen Davis and Delonte West each at minus-16 points in this rout, and Jeff Green at minus-12). But the starting five was exquisite, as Rondo pushed the tempo and moved the ball to create the kind of open shots that make Pierce and Allen look five to 10 years younger.
Pierce's 14-point opening quarter propelled Boston to a 9-0 lead, and anytime the Knicks pulled within five, somebody in green was converting a smoothly uncontested jumper from either side of the arc. New York was down by a manageable 58-50 soon after halftime before the Celtics pulled away with excruciatingly consistent aim, outscoring the Knicks 28-13 over the quarter's concluding 9:07 to turn the Knicks' fans against them as they returned to their bench for the hopeless fourth.
An evening like this one demands a kind of musculature that the Knicks lack and that the Celtics don't bother to flex until they really care. But it's not so much that they decide to try; it's more that they need to be turned on, and this moment did that for them. Now that they've finished off any doubt of losing this series, they can do themselves another favor by clinching in Game 4 Sunday, the better to prepare themselves for the far more inspiring challenge of Miami.