NEW YORK — It may have been a gesture that signaled the Celtics returning to the NBA’s consciousness after two months of being an afterthought.
With 45.5 seconds left in Monday night’s game against the Knicks, Paul Pierce nearly dribbled out the 24-second clock before spinning and launching a prayer of a 21-foot jumper that went in for a 6-point Celtics lead. On his way back down the court, Pierce stretched out both arms and then kissed the index and middle fingers of his right hand and waved in the direction of Knicks superfan Spike Lee.
The shot essentially sealed perhaps the biggest Celtics win of the season, a 102-96 decision at Madison Square Garden without the suspended Rajon Rondo. The Celtics carried over the momentum from their previous two victories and played a brilliant game against the juggernaut Knicks, coming back after New York briefly tied the game midway through the fourth quarter.
These were the Celtics who made a run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. They didn’t panic, make silly turnovers, or stumble with defensive lapses. They returned to .500 after winning their most difficult road challenge of the season, getting 39 points from the bench and shooting at a 52.7 percent clip.
The Knicks, meanwhile, scored just 40 points in the second half on 13-for-36 shooting, and the Celtics forced Carmelo Anthony, second in the league in scoring entering the game, into 20 missed shots.
Anthony became so infuriated he began jawing with Kevin Garnett, and the two had to be separated. Anthony directed expletives at Garnett throughout the second half, but Garnett was hardly distracted. He sank two free throws with 24.1 seconds left for the final margin.
After the buzzer sounded, Anthony raced past teammate Kurt Thomas and Knicks security and sprinted down the tunnel, nearly reaching the Celtics locker room, screaming more expletives before being restrained by teammates.
It was the first time in 67 games that Anthony had missed 20 or more shots as the Celtics defense challenged his every move. He finished with 20 points on 6-for-26 shooting.
“We just tried to put a hand in his face, Melo is such a good scorer . . . scorers, man, you just try to slow them down,” Garnett said. “We just tried to run him off the 3[-point line] and attack him.”
When asked about his altercation with Anthony with 9:03 left, which prompted double technicals, Garnett said, “Heat of the battle. When you’re out there on the floor, everything’s high, everything’s top notch. He’s trying to get his team to go, I’m trying to get my team to go, things are colliding, not to mention that it’s the Knicks and the Celtics. Just what it is man. It’s basketball, all right?”
Anthony’s postgame actions could result in a suspension by the NBA; the Celtics are all-too-familiar with losing an All-Star caliber player to a league ban. Rondo, suspended for the game for bumping an official Saturday night, missed his third game because of suspension this season, forcing the Celtics into scramble mode in the backcourt.
But without Rondo, the Celtics were more unselfish, collecting 26 assists to New York’s 19 and getting six from Pierce, who survived despite getting his fourth foul with 8:55 left in the third.
“It’s big for us, we’re starting to pull some games together, the Knicks have really been playing well all year long, one of the top teams in the NBA,” Pierce said. “It’s a real confidence booster when you come in on their floor with the way they’ve been playing and get a win. We knew it was going to be a physical game. You got two rivals in the division fighting for the same thing.”
Pierce has a flair for the dramatic at the Garden. He drained a winning shot here three years ago and paraded around the court.
“I don’t know what I do [after] a lot of those shots,” Pierce said, laughing. “I just react. I don’t know what I am going to do. I’ve been tuning Spike Lee out for years, man. That’s just common noise.”
New York leads the league in 3-pointers made and attempted and it converted eight in the second quarter, leading by as many as 9 (50-41). But as the Knicks’ long-distance shooting cooled off, as Anthony became more frustrated with the physical Boston defense, and as New York’s lack of an interior game became more obvious, the Celtics became more confident.
They held the Knicks to 6-for-17 shooting in the third quarter and no 3-pointers.
Meanwhile, the Celtics bench continued to compensate for the lack of production from the starters as Jeff Green’s free throw gave Boston the lead for good at 67-66 and Jared Sullinger soon followed with a dunk off a dish from Courtney Lee and then ended the quarter with a putback at the buzzer for a 76-72 lead.
The rookie Sullinger again showed no nerves in a big situation, finishing with 10 points, 5 rebounds, and a blocked shot in 19 minutes. Green, in his wildly inconsistent season, delivered 16 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes, while Leandro Barbosa made his biggest contribution in a month with 8 points and three assists.
After weeks of talking about trusting each other, the Celtics finally did without their point guard, and the results were especially rewarding.
“Winning without Rondo tells you our guys hung in there,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s funny. We didn’t have much offense, we didn’t have much sets without Rondo. Our defense was fantastic. I thought we gave up seven [3-pointers] they shouldn’t have had and it was our mistakes. In the second half, we corrected them.”