As ever, the Knicks’ fate seemed to hang in the balance with every shot. As ever, Paul Pierce was there to taunt and torture them. As ever, the were the sharper team when it mattered most in a victory at the raucous TD Garden.
In its emotions and intensity, the game mirrored the first-round series these teams staged last spring. The outcome was familiar, too. Pierce scored 30 points, leading the Celtics back from a 12-point second-half deficit, and the Knicks lost in the final seconds for the second straight night.
“That’s two in a row that we had legitimate chances to win,” Coach said. “We haven’t quite finished. Been weird circumstances, but that’s life.”
The circumstances included a 3-pointer by Pierce being overturned by replay, and three missed Boston free throws that kept the Knicks alive in the final minutes. But the Celtics’ defense denied and Amar’e Stoudemire any opportunity to beat them, forcing the Knicks to rely on their shaky supporting cast.
Iman Shumpert and Landry Fields each missed an open 3-point attempt in the final minute, both times on passes from Anthony, who was double-teamed. Anthony also missed a driving layup down the stretch, completing a 1-for-5 fourth quarter.
The Knicks’ last chance ended in chaos as Fields, with 4.2 seconds left, could not get the ball inbounded to Anthony and had to dump it to Steve Novak in the corner. Novak, who had not played all night, missed an awkward 3-pointer as time expired.
“Obviously, Melo was going to come directly to the ball to get it,” Fields said.
Fearing a five-second violation, and with no timeouts and no one else open, Fields said he threw to Novak.
“If somebody came off and I didn’t see him, I apologize,” Fields said. “I’ll take the blame for that.”
D’Antoni said simply, “We didn’t execute.”
Anthony, who looked upset just after the buzzer, declined to analyze the play, saying: “I don’t know, man, my mind is blank right now. I can’t even remember that last play.”
There is much more season to be played, but every loss now pushes the Knicks (8-15) further from playoff contention and nudges D’Antoni toward possible dismissal. The loss was the Knicks’ 11th in 13 games, dropping them a season-high seven games under .500.
Yet they arguably have played some of their best basketball in the last week, pushing Miami, Chicago and Boston, three of the Eastern Conference’s best teams, to the final seconds before losing.
Anthony led the Knicks with 26 points, but did not score in the last 6 minutes 33 seconds. Stoudemire added 16 points and 11 rebounds but scored his last basket with 11:24 to play.
“They was triple-teaming me,” Anthony said, adding, “The only thing I can do, if somebody is double-teaming or triple-teaming, is find the open man. And that’s what I did tonight.”
Unfortunately for Anthony, making the right basketball play did not produce the results the Knicks needed, as Shumpert and Fields misfired.
“I’ll make that play any day,” Anthony said, although he acknowledged, “My mind-set, I want to take that shot.”
The game did not end without some controversy. D’Antoni and Stoudemire each received technical fouls for complaining to the referees, costing the Knicks 2 critical points.
The Celtics (12-10) also had their frustrations. They were clinging to a 1-point lead when Pierce nailed a 3-pointer for an apparent 93-89 lead with 14.4 seconds left. But the basket was wiped out after officials reviewed the play on video, determining that Pierce did not release the shot before the shot clock expired.
The Knicks led throughout the second half, but their offense sputtered, and the mistakes piled up. Boston tied the game early in the fourth, then took the lead on Ray Allen’s 3-pointer with 4:24 to play. Allen tacked on a free throw after D’Antoni’s technical.
Rajon Rondo returned to the Celtics lineup after an eight-game absence because of a sore wrist. He finished with 7 points, 7 assists and a swollen right eye, thanks to an inadvertent smack from Shumpert in the first quarter.
The Knicks conclude this three-games-in-three-nights set Saturday night against the Nets at Madison Square Garden. It should be a winnable game, if the Knicks can classify any game as winnable anymore.
“I must say, these last couple games, these last three games we’ve been playing way better,” Anthony said. “I can feel the chemistry coming around.”
Kenyon Martin, who was briefly on the Knicks’ radar as a potential backup forward, signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday, according to multiple reports. The Knicks inquired about Martin but have been much more focused on J. R. Smith, who could help solve their 3-point shooting deficiencies. Smith and Martin signed in China during the lockout, contractually preventing them from returning to the N.B.A. until their Chinese teams finished the season. Martin received an early clearance from FIBA, the international basketball federation. Smith might not return to the N.B.A. until March. The Knicks have only a $2.5 million salary-cap exception to offer.