NEW YORK -- The Knicks' final possession unfolded far from the way it was designed. The inbounds pass by Penny Hardaway was deflected -- and nearly intercepted -- by Jiri Welsch. The near-turnover disrupted the play, and Stephon Marbury ultimately was left at the top of the arc, inexplicably dribbling away the clock. Allan Houston was supposed to be the first option, but Welsch kept him fully occupied.
So, with Chucky Atkins in front of him, 2.9 seconds remaining, and his team down by 2, Marbury let loose a 3-point attempt. The ball bounced off the right front of the rim, and Ricky Davis grabbed the rebound. After Davis made one of two free throws, the Celtics celebrated an 87-84 victory at sold-out Madison Square Garden, their sixth straight and one that gave them a share of sixth place with New York in the Eastern Conference.
Their longest winning streak of the season has catapulted the Celtics from lottery team to legitimate playoff contender with five weeks remaining.
"I know he ain't going to pass it up," said Atkins of defending Marbury's final shot. "So my thing is to keep him from trying to get to the basket and just keep him in front of me. He's a guy who's going to go for the blood. If I was in his situation, I would have done the same thing."
Maybe. But with Atkins providing a veteran presence at point guard, the Celtics (29-36) have played a remarkably composed and intelligent brand of ball late in games. Last night was just the latest example.
Boston entered the fourth quarter leading, 62-60, but New York took its first lead of the second half when Houston converted an 18-footer on the break with 6:53 remaining. The Knicks (29-36) stretched their advantage to as many as 4 points (76-72). The Celtics fought back and tied the contest on a few occasions, though they did not regain the momentum until the final minute.
With 1:06 left, a pick-and-roll play resulted in Paul Pierce finding Mark Blount for a driving dunk that gave Boston the lead for good, 83-81. But the momentum did not swing fully until a couple of possessions later. With one second remaining on the shot clock and 24.6 seconds left on the game clock, Pierce nailed a 21-footer from the left corner.
Tim Thomas (17 points) brought New York back within 1 on a driving layup, and Pierce missed a crucial free throw to give the Knicks a shot at victory with a 3-pointer. But unlike the Celtics, who made their final possessions count, Marbury and the Knicks came up empty in the face of disruptive defense.
"It just seems like a light switch clicked on," said Pierce (23 points). "We understand what it is going to take on the defensive end. We are getting it done at that end of the floor. That is what is really taking care of things. We know we have the offensive weapons to play with anybody in the league, but when we step up with that type of defensive toughness, especially late in the game, we give ourselves the best chance of winning."
The Celtics succeeded despite shooting 41 percent and allowing the Knicks to shoot 44 percent. The differential was even more pronounced in the fourth quarter, when Boston shot 38 percent and New York 46 percent. But the Celtics got baskets when it mattered most.
Needless to say, New York coach Lenny Wilkens was not pleased with what he saw from Marbury, especially during the final seconds.
"If we had executed the offense, we would have had more opportunities to score," said Wilkens. "We settled a little too much for one-on-one. That's when you have to trust your offense. You have to believe it will work." The Celtics believe not only in their offense, they believe they are a playoff team. The postseason certainly is a stronger possibility than it was two weeks ago, when the Celtics were struggling with a seven-game losing streak. But the Lakers are on the schedule tonight at the FleetCenter and the Pacers are in town Friday.
Starting the week with wins over Minnesota and New York has pushed Boston's confidence to a season-high.
"It was a playoff atmosphere [tonight] and it showed what it is going to be like in the East," said Davis, who scored 12 of his 15 points in the second quarter. "Guys just woke up and realized that we are still in the playoff race and that we are capable of beating anyone."