The task was daunting – the Boston Celtics were playing their third game in four nights. It was against the New York Knicks, the team with the second best record in the Eastern Conference. It was in Madison Square Garden, a place where New York had only lost four times this season. And the Celtics were without star point guard Rajon Rondo. On top of that Boston's top offensive player Paul Pierce spent much of the night in foul trouble, but the Celtics still won. Behind 23 points from Pierce, 19 and 9 rebounds from Kevin Garnett, and huge effort from the bench led by Jeff Green's 16 points and six rebounds, the Celtics topped the Knicks 102-96 Monday night at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks meanwhile got 24 points from J.R. Smith and 13 points and 17 rebounds from Tyson Chandler, but just 20 points on 6-26 shooting from Carmelo Anthony. Before tonight the Knicks were ready to put their stamp of ownership on the Atlantic Division, but the Celtics changed their tune with a statement win.
This one was tight all the way down to the wire, but the turning point actually came in the first quarter. The Celtics were coming off back to back wins, but they were in hostile territory playing their third game in four nights without their star point guard. It wouldn't have surprised anyone if the Knicks ran them over and early on it looked like they would. Garnett scored the first eight points for Boston, but no other starter scored until the second quarter. And when Pierce picked up his second foul sending him to the bench less than five minutes into the game the Celtics looked to be in big trouble. The Knicks quickly opened up a 10 point lead on an Amare Stoudemire jumpshot with 5:14 remaining in the first quarter and things looked like they were about to get ugly, but the Celtics bench clawed back into it. With Pierce and Garnett on the bench the Celtics closed the quarter on a 14-3 run to take a 22-21 lead into the second quarter. It would have been very easy for the Celtics to lay down and die with their starting point guard suspended and their captain in foul trouble, but in this stretch they showed that they weren't going down without a fight.
Green Comes Through
Every player who played on Monday contributed to this win. The bench was spectacular, but the biggest contribution came from Jeff Green. With Pierce in foul trouble for most of the night Green had to play extended minutes, and the Celtics really had to lean on him for offense with Rondo out and Jason Terry's shot not falling. He came through in a big way. People forget, but the Celtics traded for Green in the first place for games like this one. They need him to play against the best small forwards in the game i.e. Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James. He didn't have that opportunity last year, but on Monday night in MSG he let Celtic nation know why he is here. With Pierce in foul trouble and Anthony playing like an MVP candidate the Celtics needed Green more than ever tonight and he delivered. The Celtics simply would not have won this game without him.
But Dont Forget the Rest
The standout performance came from Green, but every reserve who checked into the game on Monday gave the Celtics a boost. Jared Sullinger continues to make winning basketball plays – not only did he score 10 points and grab five rebounds, he also force three Knick turnovers by drawing offensive fouls and his put back layup as the third quarter expired was a momentum shifting bucket if ever their was one. Courtney Lee teamed up with Avery Bradley to play spectacular perimeter defense, taking Jason Kidd almost entirely out of the game and forcing J.R. Smith into innumerable difficult shots. Even Leandro Barbosa came up big, scoring eight points and providing a shot in the arm when the Celtics really needed some offense.
It's All About AB
"I think that's all Avery Bradley. I think he shames guys into it."
-A. Sherrod Blakely
It's hard to believe that one player can have this kind of impact, but the Celtics have been a completely different team since Bradley's return. Before Bradley came back the Celtics occasionally showed some defensive intensity but spent the vast majority of every game just going through the motions. Now it's rare to see them even take a play off. Even in the loss to Memphis the Celtics were clearly more engaged on the defensive end and it really does all come down to Bradley. It's not just that he is capable of single handedly destroying possessions, he just changes the way that the Celtics play. When the Celtics see him extending full court pressure, playing every defensive possession at one million miles per hour, they can't help but play harder. Better yet Bradley seemed to find his shot on Monday, scoring 13 points and 6-11 shooting after struggling in his first three games. We all know what he is defensively, but when he is knocking down shots he is a legitimate nightmare.
As this game remained tight late into the fourth quarter things really started getting physical. The Celtics were frustrating Anthony and, true to form, he started pushing an shoving away from the ball committing a number of pointless fouls, and this seemed to spread to the rest of the players as the game got awfully chippy. Garnett and Anthony were given double technicals for jawing at each other with 9:03 to go in the fourth, and Smith had to be bandaged up after butting heads with Bradley with just over a minute remaining. Rumors have now surfaced that Anthony came over to the Celtics bench after the game and was later head yelling and screaming outside the Celtics locker. The rivalry is clearly getting heated. The Knicks wanted to use this game as a statement, establishing them as the new power in the Atlantic Division, but Boston wasn't having it.
Pierce at MSG
The Knicks have been improving for years now, but one of the main reasons why they still haven't been able to supplant the Celtics is they still can't find an answer for Pierce. If one looks at the matchup most will give the edge to Anthony, figuring he would crush Pierce in a head to head matchup. Yet somehow Pierce has always had his way with Carmelo and has always shot well at MSG. He has repeatedly burned the Knicks with big shots over the past three years, and he did it again on Monday, knocking down a cold blooded step back over Chandler that put the Celtics up by six with 45 seconds remaining. Pierce has always played his best under the bright lights. Perhaps someone at MSG should hit the dimmer switch or they may never beat Pierce and the Celtics.
What It Means
Fans had to take the Pacers game with grain of salt because Indiana played terribly and aren't a great offensive team to begin with. It was hugely encouraging when Boston went to Atlanta and beat the Hawks, throttling them with stellar defense in the second half, but then Rondo went and got himself suspended and the momentum looked ready to die, but it didn't. This is easily Boston's best win of the year. Beating the Knicks at MSG without Rondo? If that's not a sign that this team is getting set to take off what is?
The Celtics open up a five game home stand Wednesday night against the Pheonix Suns at 7:30 p.m. from TD Garden. There is an opportunity here to really turn the season around.
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