NEW YORK - The drama would seem impossible, until you consider the stage. Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day, the opening game in an abbreviated NBA season that will be the final run for the Celtics’ Big Three against a Knicks team geared to overtake them in the Atlantic Division.
The Celtics had New England fans flipping to reruns of “A Christmas Story’’ after a poor first half, only to storm back with a stellar third quarter, erasing doubts that their legs were too old and their talent deficient. Yet the one factor that last season turned the Celtics from an elite team into just a contender returned: A weary team was unable to stop a prime scorer down the stretch.
Carmelo Anthony took control of the contest, erasing an 8-point Celtics lead in the fourth quarter with a 17-point period - including the decisive free throws - to give the Knicks a 106-104 win.
In the second half, the Celtics neutralized every New York weapon except Anthony, who finished with a game-high 37 points. Boston desperately missed his counterpart in Paul Pierce, who was sidelined with a troublesome bruised right heel.
Rajon Rondo, reeling the past few weeks from trade rumors, sparkled in the spotlight, finishing with 31 points, 13 assists, 5 rebounds, and 5 steals as the Knicks continually fouled him or allowed him to slide to the basket. Yet Rondo had just one bucket in the fourth quarter as the Celtics shot 35 percent and came a bit unglued, committing two costly technical fouls down the stretch.
After the game, an agitated Doc Rivers had some pointed words for the officials, specifically Joey Crawford, who called the fourth-quarter technicals on Sasha Pavlovic and Jermaine O’Neal. Crawford has a reputation for quick technicals and showboating.
“Fourth-quarter technicals on our team are not allowed,’’ said the Celtics coach. “This game has to be about the players, all right. I mean, come on. I thought both teams were complaining just the same and we got two technicals. The game has to be about the players on the floor, that’s it.’’
Meanwhile, Kevin Garnett, after missing an open jumper that would have tied it, got into a postgame exchange with former Celtic Bill Walker, who was defending him on that final shot. Garnett shoved Walker in the throat area before the two were separated.
Garnett wouldn’t address the altercation, but he did discuss the Celtics’ performance after nearly five months of inactivity because of the NBA lockout.
“Rondo, obviously, playing real well today,’’ he said. “Man, we can’t obviously get down on the road to a good team, you can’t do that, in their building.’’
The Celtics trailed by as many as 17 in the first half.
“You dig yourself a hole, it’s very hard to get out of that,’’ said Garnett. “But I thought for the most part we fought for 48 minutes. We just came up short in the fourth. Got to be better in the fourth.’’
The offseason changes to the Celtics were apparent from the start. Filling the role vacated by Glen Davis, Brandon Bass pummeled the Knicks on the boards at times, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
But Pierce’s absence was crippling. Marquis Daniels and Pavlovic finished with a combined 4 points on 2-for-8 shooting, all by Daniels. Pavlovic, getting his first start as a Celtic, did not attempt a shot and committed four fouls in 15 minutes.
Rivers and the players refused to used the absence of Pierce as an excuse.
Pierce said he may be ready to play tomorrow against the Heat (who destroyed the Mavericks yesterday), but he practiced just once during the two-week training camp.
The Celtics felt they had enough to overcome the hard-charging Knicks, who in the offseason added Tyson Chandler and dumped Chauncey Billups. Chandler finished with six blocks but otherwise was neutralized by O’Neal.
While the Celtics missed an opportunity to win, they came away encouraged after a putrid first half. They shot 51.3 percent, outrebounded the Knicks, 41-31, and Rondo looked comfortable with his jumper and attacked the basket.
“That was the focus, to get to the line,’’ said Rondo, who was 9 of 12 on free throws. “Each game I try to come out with the same intensity, same focus. It may not be me scoring every night like I scored tonight, but I tried to do the intangibles out there on the floor, whatever the team needs me to do.’’
So the Celtics headed for Miami last night more certain about what they have, yet in need of Pierce and new swingman Mickael Pietrus to complete their roster.
“I thought we were as soft as we could be in the first quarter and then I thought we joined into the 2011-12 season,’’ Rivers said. “And from that point on, I was happy with the way we played.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14.