NEW YORK – After all the shots, all the game-winners, all the times Paul Pierce has done what he wound up doing to the Knicks Wednesday night, he still gets nervous.
What Pierce does to counteract those feelings is to visualize what he wants to do, and how he wants to do it. That allows him to not only block out the crowd and focus on the moment at hand, but it also allows him to adjust to the flow of the game.
So, with the score tied and everyone in a frenzied Madison Square Garden knowing exactly what was about to happen, Pierce went about his business. He was surprised when the Knicks switched on the pick and roll and he was even more surprised when Amar’e Stoudemire practically invited him to go right, which is exactly where he wanted to go.
Then, he just did what he does.
“He played me to go right,” Pierce said. “I thought he was up so far on me to where I could get a layup, so I tried to go for the layup and he cut it off. I was able to create the space and get the shot.”
The shot was true, but as Pierce was able to laugh about later, “Not quite a walkoff. I left too much time on the clock.”
Not enough time, as it turned out, for Stoudemire’s answer, a near-miraculous 3-pointer, to count. Though Stoudemire buried a 25-footer, it left his hand just after the buzzer, the potential game-winning bucket getting waved off.
The Celtics walked, or in Rajon Rondo’s case hobbled, out of the Garden with a 118-116 victory that was better than any adjectives could possible capture.
When it was over, the Celtics professed respect for the Knicks and frankly their simple joy for playing in these types of games.
“I love these type of environments,” Pierce said. “It’s rare when you get these type of environments in regular season. There’s only so many games you circle on the schedule, know it’s going to be a playoff-type atmosphere, a playoff-type game. The guys on this team know what they are and this was definitely one of them, and we love these games.”
But the Celtics have been here before and Pierce, well, Pierce has made a second career out of thriving in these types of situations. Being Pierce, he couldn’t resist playing to the crowd, but what the hell? It was that type of night and that type of shot.
“You kind of get spoiled by playing with Paul,” Rondo said. “It was definitely a tough shot, especially over a 7-footer. But that’s P’s shot. He’s hit that shot time after time going right, fading back. It’s a shot you can’t block.”
The NBA rarely gets better than it did Wednesday. There were ebbs and flows, punches and counter-punches and, for the Celtics, yet another injury concern for their point guard, which is where we’ll start.
RAJON RONDO TOUGHS IT OUT
Rondo’s night actually took a turn for the worse before he rolled his ankle and had to be helped back to the locker room. It started to go downhill late in the third quarter when Doc Rivers pulled him and left him fuming on the bench.
“Rondo was struggling in the third quarter and that’s why I took him out, and he wasn’t very happy with it, but we don’t really mind about that,” Rivers said. “And Nate [Robinson] came in and played great, but we needed him. We needed him in the game because our whole plan down the stretch was to go small, and if Rondo couldn’t have come in, I thought we would have been in a little trouble because down the stretch against that team, I thought we had to go small. So he came back.”
And that’s when he turned his ankle. Rondo stayed down on the floor while the action went up the other end of the court. He tried to stretch it out, then he crumpled again. No one knew if he could come back, but Rondo was game.
“I wanted to,” he said. “I put a little pressure on it in the back and [trainer] Ed [Lacerte] re-taped me. It hurts, but all ankle sprains hurt.”
Rondo’s going to be evaluated Thursday, and although he said he planned to play against the Hawks that night, he is essentially doubtful. “It’s a little bit of everything,” he said with a sigh. “Something new every game.”
Do not underestimate the effect Rondo’s determination to play has on his teammates.
“Just grit, man,” an admiring Kevin Garnett said. “This is 82. This is NBA basketball. This is what it is. If you’re a chump you go home. The weak don’t survive in this. You got to have something in you, you got to have something special about you. You got to have the extra oomph in you that’s going to make you become what you want to be in this league. He’s a no-nonsense kid. He’s going to fight to the end. Leg hurt, foot hurt, he’s doing with multiple injuries. The kid comes out here and gives you everything he has every night.”
And if he can’t go, the Celtics will adjust. That is their mantra this season.
“He’s been banged up over the last month,” Pierce said. “There’s probably a slim chance we’ll have him tomorrow. So, we’ve played a few games without him. We’ve got to make adjustments, that happens. But hey, what’s new for us? We got a lot of guys going down right now, and we keep finding ways.”
GARNETT’S DEFENSIVE STAND
Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast. There’s no other way to say it and the Celtics had very few options to try and stop him. They had one, actually, but Rivers was reluctant to use it.
Without Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal or Kendrick Perkins – “21 feet of centers,” Rivers joked before the game – the coach knew that he couldn’t afford to have Garnett get in foul trouble trying to lock up Stoudemire for 36 minutes.
“We didn’t have KG on Stoudemire a whole bunch, because we just didn’t have enough bigs right now,” Rivers said. “We can’t afford KG or Baby to get into foul trouble, then you’re stuck with Semih on the floor guarding [Stoudemire], we just can’t. Obviously, if you had [Kendrick Perkins] and Shaq, KG would have been on Stoudemire probably the whole game. Right now, the way we’re constructed, we can’t afford it.”
So he used him judiciously until there was no choice. Not that Stoudemire didn’t score on Garnett -- the man was darn near unstoppable at times -- but Garnett never makes it easy. And with the score tied and 13 seconds left, Garnett made his stand.
“In the timeout he said, ‘I got him,’” Pierce said. “Amar’e was hitting tough shots over him. He said his hand was right there. He just said, ‘I got him.’ He wound up making a huge defensive stop down the stretch. He pretty much saved us.”
Stoudemire missed, setting the stage for Pierce’s heroics. Ever the basketball connoisseur, Pierce said he would go home and watch the game just to see the two All-Stars tangle.
“I’ll probably go home and watch this game and watch those two go at it,” Pierce said. “You’re talking about two of the elite power forwards and I thought Kevin down the stretch really took the challenge.”
They all did and that’s why they’re the Celtics.
“We’ve been in a lot of these games,” Garnett said. “We’ve been in a lot of these scenarios. This was no different.”
But wasn’t it?
THE RIVALRY QUESTION
In the end, who cares? Whether or not the players on these two teams consider their future meetings to be a rivalry, or whatever you want to call it, is immaterial. The feeling Wednesday night in basketball’s most special arena was tense and electric and it brought out the best in both teams.
“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “It was good to see Spike [Lee] yelling again. It really was. It was a great atmosphere. You know you can’t get this atmosphere in a lot of places. I think you can get it in Boston, even with the new arena, after that... I don’t know. There’s some other places. But it’s really neat.”
If that’s all this winds up being, then at least we have this one night, and in the NBA you take your special regular season evenings where you can find them.
The reality is that while the Knicks have a long way to go to get back into the elite teams conversation, they are clearly a good basketball team and more than that, their style represents a unique challenge to the Celtics and the way they play defense.
“They test our defense,” Pierce said. “There are few teams in the NBA that test our defense. That’s one of them because they go small ball and they put four shooters on the court. Then when you got a big man who’s an elite scorer in this league, who can shoot from everywhere, they’re a tough guard.”
“I’ll say one thing about the Knicks, they’re confidence is obviously through the roof,” Garnett said. “Definitely a team to reckon with.”
So, it’s something and one can only hope that the next time will be even better and the time after that, although this one will be hard to top. Who knows? Maybe they will meet in the playoffs because that’s where real rivalries are formed.
We’ll leave the last word to the man who made the final statement on the court.
“It’s a start,” Pierce said. “You got to start somewhere. Who knows where it’s going to take us, but it’s definitely a good start if you guys want to call it a rivalry, but hey, that’s how they start.”