|The Celtics' Paul Pierce battles past Jeremy Lin and the Knicks in a fine throwback of a game. (Getty Images)|
BOSTON -- There was nothing wrong with what had just happened at TD Garden, regardless of which locker room you were inhabiting. The Knicks had just played the Celtics in an overtime game on a Sunday afternoon, exchanging body blows and end-of-clock daggers and providing the kind of finish you'd expect from their rivalry -- the kind of tension that the playoffs demand.
And yet, this being the NBA, the outcome was steeped in angst. From the Knicks' perspective, Carmelo Anthony had done everything to put the Knicks on the verge of finally beating Boston here (11 points in the fourth quarter in a classic, shot-for-shot duel with Paul Pierce) but not enough to actually close it out (only two points, both on free throws, in overtime.)
A while after the Celtics had closed out the Knicks with a 115-111 victory, their fourth straight to climb two games above .500, Ray Allen walked down the hallway of the arena with his uniform still on and is face grim. Deep in concentration or contemplation, Allen personified the mood around the Celtics these days. With every loss, their championship aspirations grow even dimmer. Every victory feels like a relief.
"We were not disciplined down the stretch," a key participant said afterward, and no, he was not affiliated with the Knicks, whose quest to adopt some of the Celtics' end-of-game poise and gumption fell short again. These words were spoken by Doc Rivers, whose stewardship of the Big Three (and now, irretrievably, Big Four) era has been marked by nothing if not discipline, with heavy doses of ruthlessness thrown in.
These were the Knicks (18-19) and Celtics (19-17), playing in the same game but feeling oh, so differently about the outcome and what it meant.
From now until March 15, the trade deadline, every step the Celtics take will be dissected for meaning about whether it is time to break up their championship core. For the Knicks, each step forward and back is painfully analyzed for what it means to their stars, Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and their point guard, Jeremy Lin, whose presence on the Garden court seemed important until attendance was taken and Rajon Rondo said, "Here."
Rondo was there, all right, putting up 18 points, 17 rebounds and 20 assists -- and avalanche of dazzling production that hadn't been seen since Wilt Chamberlain (who's been in the news this week) registered 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists on Feb. 2, 1968. Rondo's fourth triple-double this season -- and 17th of his career, including playoffs -- marked the first time anyone had put up 17 in each category since Magic Johnson himself had 24 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists on April 18, 1989.
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"I'm tired now," Rondo said. "I wasn't tired during the game. I had no time and no room to get tired."
In the other locker room across the hall, Anthony smiled through the disappointment and had some aches and pains of his own to address. After customarily icing his knees, Anthony soon realized that nothing he did at the end of regulation would matter once it got contorted by the tabloid grist mill. His six straight points in a 64-second span -- sandwiched around Pierce jumpers -- no longer mattered once he'd gone 0 for 4 in overtime. (Pierce, who'd sent the game there with a 3-pointer off a broken play that was supposed to have been for Allen with 4.9 second left in regulation, was scoreless and shotless in the extra period.)
Anthony had a chance to answer Pierce one more time on the final possession of regulation, but his driving jumper glanced off the rim at the buzzer.
"It had a chance to go in," Melo said. "I had a chance to make it. I missed it. It happens."
The fact that from 3:35 to 18.1 of the fourth, no one besides Lin (6) and Anthony (6) scored for the Knicks probably won't quell concerns about their ability to play or fit together. That storyline will continue to charge ahead, head down and shoulders square, the way Anthony did through each miss in overtime.
Barely a week ago, the common refrain was that Anthony would return from a groin injury and suck all the wind out of the Knicks' sails. On Saturday, one of the city's back pages proclaimed, "Melo Or Bust," correctly pointing out that the key to the Knicks' season wouldn't be the point guard from Harvard but rather the All-Star from Denver.
"All you can do is laugh," Anthony said after the game, his 25 points and seven rebounds barely a memory, drowned out by the Celtics' guile and the playoff sounds of the northernmost Garden.
All the rest of us can do is hope the Knicks find some of the poise they're lacking and that the Celtics haven't been dismantled by the next time they play New York, on April 17 at Madison Square Garden. After what we saw Sunday -- a gritty, Eastern Conference slugfest of stars with two coaches who trust their players to play -- who wouldn't cross their fingers and hope for a rematch of last spring's first-round playoff series, swept by Boston in four games?
"It's not only been this season," said Pierce, who had 34 points. "It's been since they [got] Amar'e and Carmelo and they became relevant again. It's just something about that New York-Boston rivalry."
Alas, with the flaws of both teams so endlessly documented, if Sunday's clash between the wily Celtics and learn-as-they-go Knicks left you wanting more, you're bound to be disappointed. With half the season already gone, the Knicks and Celtics aren't on a collision course with each other as much as they are waiting to find out which one gets to face Miami and which one Chicago in the first round.
Depending on whether the Knicks learn from their mistakes and whether the Celtics keep the gang all here for one more run, both of those clashes have a very good chance of ending badly. So for now, we're left with a triple-double for the ages, a superstar duel at the end of the fourth between Pierce and Anthony and a very uncertain future for both.
"It's going to always be a tough battle between us and the Celtics," Anthony said. "... A game like this is fun."
Enjoy it while it lasts. I know I did.