|PAUL PIERCE31 points|
NEW YORK - Opposing teams seem to have discovered the Celtics' Achilles' heel.
The New York Knicks concentrated their defense on point guard Rajon Rondo in defeating the Celtics, 100-88, last night. It was the Celtics' fourth loss in six games, a streak that began Dec. 25 when the Los Angeles Lakers used similar tactics for a 92-83 victory.
But the Knicks added a Hector-ian twist, capitalizing on a right calf injury to Kevin Garnett late in the third quarter. Literally, a David Lee kick to Garnett's calf caused the problem. Figuratively, this was a kick in the Celtics' teeth.
"I thought [the Knicks] had amazing energy and focus. I thought we had average energy and focus," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "In the first half, we were shooting 54 percent and I thought we were playing like crap offensively and defensively. Then, in the second half, we didn't make shots.
"It bugs you when you lose a game, especially a game you think you should win. But I didn't think we should win [last] night, not the way we played. I thought they played with terrific energy, I thought they played harder than us, they executed better than us, and I thought Mike [D'Antoni] did a better coaching job than I did, and their players did a better playing job than our players. When that happens you are probably going to lose the game."
The Celtics faltered badly in the late going, converting only one meaningful field goal in the final 6:23. A Paul Pierce 3-pointer cut the deficit to 91-86 with 3:39 remaining, but the Knicks then scored 9 successive points before Glen Davis's jumper with 17 seconds to go.
"There will be nights when Rondo is not making shots or not making plays," Rivers said. "On those nights you are hoping somebody else can pick you up. When he struggles like that, and the way Kevin struggled, that's taking two of your five starters out of your lineup."
Pierce (31 points, 7 rebounds) filled that role for much of the contest, staying on the court for 42 minutes, well over the time limit Rivers usually allots.
"He single-handedly was keeping us in the game," Rivers said of Pierce. "But I still should have taken him off."
Pierce continued the 3-point assault he began during a 108-83 win over Washington Friday, converting his third of the game early in the third quarter - extending an 8 for 10 run over two games. But Pierce missed his next 3-point attempt and the Knicks' Wilson Chandler scored 8 successive points (on two field goal attempts) with his free throw extending the New York lead to 66-60 with 6:39 to go.
Garnett converted a baseline shot 58 seconds after tipoff, but did not get another shot until early in third quarter, the Knicks capitalizing on that miss to find Chandler, who drew a three-shot foul from Garnett.
Ray Allen's layup off a Rondo steal 15 seconds into the second half gave the Celtics a 55-50 advantage, but the visitors would convert only 5 of 20 shots for the rest of the quarter. The Knicks went on a 23-7 run before Garnett flipped a behind-the-back pass for a Kendrick Perkins dunk - the play in which Garnett's right calf was injured.
Brian Scalabrine replaced Garnett after a timeout, sinking his first shot to cut the Celtics' deficit to 74-66 with 100 seconds remaining in the quarter. A Pierce foul shot pulled the Celtics within 6 points, but the Knicks closed with an Al Harrington 3-pointer and a Nate Robinson foul shot in the final 33 seconds for a 78-68 edge.
The Celtics' defense kicked into gear early in the final quarter. Chandler (31 points, 8 rebounds) did not score for the first 6:36 of the quarter and Harrington (30 points, 7 rebounds) had two foul shots in the fourth quarter.
Scalabrine's defending limited Harrington as the Knicks failed to convert from the field until Lee's dunk (following a Scalabrine block on a Harrington drive) 5:19 into the quarter.
Pierce hit three short-range jumpers in an 80-second span, pulling the Celtics within 84-79 with 6:23 left forcing the Knicks to call a timeout, allowing Garnett to return to action.
Lee scored again, this time after Garnett caused a Chris Duhon airball with 5:59 to go. The Celtics would convert only once from the field in a 6:06 span (a Pierce 3-pointer off an inbounds pass with :02 on the shot clock), their failure symbolized by a Rondo airball and an Allen missed 3-pointer, Chandler getting a 3-point play in transition for a 98-86 advantage.
That signaled wholesale substituting by Rivers.
"We played awful in the first quarter, awful in the third quarter, awful in the fourth quarter," Rivers said. "If this was the CBA they would get an extra point because they won three quarters."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.