The and the played a game Wednesday night, because the schedule requires 82, but it resembled an October exhibition much more than a playoff preview.
Both teams exercised caution over playing time. The Celtics rested their entire starting five — Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and . The Knicks held out and Chauncey Billups.
At the final buzzer, the , 112-102.
The cheers and taunts were muted, as if the fans, too, were waiting for something worth screaming about. It will come Sunday, when these teams take the court for Game 1 of the playoffs. Game 2 will be played Tuesday, also in Boston, before the series shifts to Madison Square Garden next Friday, for the Knicks’ first home playoff game in seven years.
“Now we know what it takes; it’s the real season now in the postseason,” said Amar’e Stoudemire, who spearheaded the return to the playoffs.
Stoudemire was the only star who played, mostly because he needed the work after sitting for nearly a week because of a sprained ankle. He showed predictable rust, going 6 for 15 from the field and finishing with 14 points in 20 minutes.
Stoudemire was eager to get back on the court, even for a meaningless game, even without his All-Star teammates next to him.
“I felt great,” he said. “Definitely wanted to get some cardio going, get back into a rhythm.”
Stoudemire showed no lingering effects from the ankle sprain and, more importantly, he avoided further injury. He played all of the first quarter and the first 8 minutes 27 seconds of the third. He clearly needed the tuneup. He missed four of his first five attempts, including a dunk that banged off the front of the rim.
“I thought weak-side was coming,” Stoudemire said with a grin. “So I tried to sidestep the invisible guy. And went up and missed it.”
The decision to play was largely Stoudemire’s, but Coach agreed with it, knowing that Stoudemire needed the work. Still, he said, “I was holding my breath the whole time.”
Landry Fields added 16 points for the Knicks, who finished 42-40, their best record in 10 years. Otherwise, it was a night to compare Italian suits and backup point guards. The suits looked better than the point guards.
There was one brief moment of tension as Bill Walker and Sasha Pavlovic jawed in the third quarter, after a flagrant foul-1 by Walker. Pavlovic got a technical foul. The only other concern for the Knicks was Shelden Williams, who sprained his left ankle.
The victory — led by Avery Bradley (20 points), Glen Davis (17 points), Jeff Green (14 points) and Pavlovic (19 points) — was a testament to the Celtics’ superior depth.
When these teams meet again, the Knicks will be back to full strength and the Celtics should be close. Delonte West, who has been nursing a sprained ankle, is expected to be ready. The Celtics are less sure about , who has a strained right calf and has been slowed all season by a series of injuries to his right leg.
If both are available, it will tip the scales even further in favor of the Celtics, who boast better depth at every position, particularly in the frontcourt. The combination of the O’Neals, Nenad Krstic and Davis will pose a huge challenge for the size-starved Knicks.
D’Antoni said he would continue to rotate three centers — Ronny Turiaf, Jared Jeffries and Williams — with Turiaf as the nominal starter. None of the three have distinguished themselves over the last month, causing D’Antoni to change starters every few games.
Turiaf and Fields started next to Stoudemire on Wednesday, along with Toney Douglas and Walker. That nondescript lineup hardly elicited a response from fans during pregame introductions, although they did mildly boo Stoudemire.
Both teams are still adjusting to midseason trades, although the Knicks’ changes — trading four rotation players for Anthony and Billups — were much more profound. The Celtics are trying to incorporate Green and adjust to life without center Kendrick Perkins, while wondering when Rondo will get his groove back. The core of the team that won the title in 2008 and went to the finals in 2010 remains, however.
“They’re still the same Celtics, man,” Stoudemire said. “They’re very, very smart offensively. They do a great job defensively out there of really, really loading up on guys.”
With the victory, Boston (56-26) swept the season series, 4-0. Only one of the three games means much: the Celtics’ 96-86 win on March 21. That was the only time these teams met with their current lineups. It was a competitive game until the Celtics blew out the Knicks with a 33-17 fourth quarter.
“We’ve always had intense games with them, it’s been great,” D’Antoni said, “but it’s nothing like the playoffs.”