NEW YORK -- The preliminaries are over, and the collision course has been calibrated just as it was meant to be. In a few short days, the rugged road through the Eastern Conference will arrive at its intended destination.
The Boston Celtics, proud champions, already had fired up the twin engines on a jet pointed toward Miami before the New York Knicks scored their first playoff basket at Madison Square Garden in seven years Friday night. After some miscues and boredom and 14 first-half turnovers, Doc Rivers and his traveling band of Hall of Famers were halfway to South Beach by the first timeout of the third quarter.
Ding, dong, the Knicks are dead, and the wise old Celtics live to embark on another postseason rampage. With big-time shooting from Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, big enough to dim the lights of Seventh Avenue and empty the Garden like it was being evacuated, the Celtics demolished the Knicks 113-96 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-7 warmup drill for the Heat.
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No, it wasn't just Pierce (38 points) or Allen (32), who combined to make 25 of 37 shots from the field, including 14 of 19 from 3-point range. It was the "catcher," as Doc Rivers called Rajon Rondo, who called a great game and coaxed a knockout blow from his lethal, sharpshooting wingmen. It was a 20-assist, 15-point, 11-rebound night for Rondo, the first 20-assist triple-double in the playoffs since Magic Johnson in 1991.
"For me, it's his play calling," Rivers said. "When he gets into a rhythm, it gets all of us into a rhythm -- even the coaches, because we see the game through him."
Nobody senses a big moment like the Celtics, and there was no missing this one. It was the biggest pro basketball event at the Garden in at least a decade, and Rivers -- the old Knick -- reminded his sultans of spring not to get caught up in all that. It was not about entertainment, Rivers had told them in the cramped visiting locker room before the game, but rather competition. Read into that what you will, but it would appear that the Celtics' interpretation was to systematically suck all the air and hope out of the place, killing the anticipation and relief that had been building throughout a lost decade between 31st and 33rd.
"I thought we came with a mentality," Rivers said. "That's the one thing this place can do. You can come in here to put on a show. I thought we came in here just to compete and play team basketball. And I thought everyone did that."
The Knicks had almost stolen not one, but two games on Boston's floor in this series -- had given the Celtics their wakeup call. On Friday, they came to the Garden smelling blood. Scalpel in hand, Rondo carved up the wounded, depleted Knicks and kept satisfying his teammates' thirst until thousands were filing into the streets of the city -- after yet another 3 from Pierce with 3:55 left.
"After a while, I started feeding off of Ray," Pierce said in the locker room, with that hoarse voice and cruelly detached description of his dagger work, both fixtures of playoff time. "He was making every shot and it was putting pressure on me to make shots. I couldn't let him down."
That's what the Celtics turned New York's long-awaited playoff party into Friday night -- a game of horse.
"It was pretty much what I expected and what I remembered," said Allen, who was 8 for 11 on 3-pointers, each one more demoralizing than the last. "My first couple of years in the league, I came up to the Garden to watch playoff games. It was no different tonight."
It wasn't different until the Celtics silenced the crowd, had them harassing the refs instead of the guys in green and white, and turned the lights out in the place. They burn again for a few more hours Sunday in Game 4, but no more.
"You can't give them that big of an opening where they smell blood," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They will kill you."
It is what the Celtics do. And now, when they are done with the Knicks -- whose star trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups was once again reduced to one, this time due to injuries -- the main course begins in Miami.
The Heat, having taken a 3-0 lead against the 76ers on Thursday night, will almost certainly finish them off Sunday. Then the Celtics get their turn, and then it's time for the calm before the storm that has been gathering since July.
Rivers spoke of the simplicity in their game when the Celtics are at their best, as they were Friday night on the kind of hostile stage they relish. After watching his team limp to the end of the regular season, Rivers had lamented having only one screen-setter, Garnett -- an obvious reference to the walking screen-setter himself, Kendrick Perkins, who had been stunningly traded to Oklahoma City in February. Rivers called Game 3 "one of our best jobs setting picks, maybe this year."
The deeper the Celtics go, the more dangerous they become.
There was nothing the Knicks could do here, not without Billups and with Stoudemire barely able to move after spending three days flat on his back. Stoudemire, who had destroyed the Celtics' front line in Game 1, managed only seven points on 2-for-8 shooting -- admitting afterward that he was trying to avoid contact, had no lift on his shot, and could only dream of finishing at the rim. That pretty much turned him into a $100 million decoy -- one who forever earned the respect of a crowd that values such effort over almost all else.
D'Antoni was left with Anthony (15 points) running the point when Toney Douglas was on the bench. It wasn't Stoudemire, but the immortal Jared Jeffries rolling to the basket on screen-and-rolls and pathetically fumbling Anthony's passes, as he did on the ill-fated final possession of Game 2. The rest of what D'Antoni had to throw at the Celtics, at these proud champions who've awakened in springtime, was a hodgepodge of nothing. The Knicks were reminded of being careful what you wish for, because they waded into the deep waters with the most cunning of sharks and couldn't get away.
All of which brings us to the main event, which has a chance to be the most memorable series of these playoffs -- all the way to June, when the Lakers may or may not be waiting at Staples Center for the Heat or Celtics. It's a simple concept, getting the showdown we knew we would get -- simple as the Celtics proved they were Friday night, under the lights of the Garden. The opponent staggered, the life and hope sucked out of another arena in the Celtics' wake, they go for the kill Sunday. Then, they rest their old, weary bones and start plotting for the opponent they've always known they would see again.