While the Celtics would love to beat the Knicks every time they play, whether it be preseason, regular season, or postseason, Boston lacked its usual passion against its Atlantic Division rival in Tuesday night’s 100-85 loss at TD Garden.
It may be that the passion will be absent again when the teams meet again Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. That’s not to say the Celtics don’t want to drub the Knicks, it’s just that the approach and reasoning is drastically different between the two clubs.
The rivalry remains strong, especially since the Knicks have added Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler. And the Knicks have managed to use a strong start — despite myriad injuries — to build a 2½-game lead over the Nets and a 7½- game lead over the Celtics in the Atlantic Division with 13 to play.
Having not won a division title since 1993-94 — when they reached the NBA Finals with John Starks and Patrick Ewing — the Knicks are hungry for a divisional banner, even if it means celebrating being the best of a five-team group that includes Philadelphia and Toronto.
“We’re just making progress as a team, as an organization,” said Anthony, after scoring 29 points in the victory. “Having something to look forward to on a year-to-year basis, being on the top of that division and make a statement.
“We want to beat them, let’s just be quite frank about it. You always want to beat Boston. New York in anything wants to beat Boston and when we do it’s a great feeling.”
The Knicks haven’t had much to be proud of over the past 19 years — save an NBA Finals appearance in the 1999 lockout-shortened season as the eighth seed — so a celebration for winning the Atlantic is planned if the Knicks hold on.
It’s a rather flimsy achievement, but not for perhaps the NBA’s most inept big-market franchise of the past two decades.
“We’re still playing for something,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said Tuesday morning. “We’ve been at the top of our division all season and I don’t want to give it away. That was what we set out to do and that’s the tough thing about when you have injuries and then you’re in minute restrictions with some of these guys, it’s tough juggling minutes and trying to manage the game. We’ve tried to manage as best we can but at the end of the day, we’re still trying to win our division. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get that done.”
On the flip side, the Celtics will rest Kevin Garnett for two weeks because of left ankle inflammation knowing full well it may cost them playoff seeding and any chance they had at overtaking the Knicks. There is very little concern about the Atlantic. The Celtics have won five straight division titles and there isn’t even a rubber bracelet to commemorate the achievement.
“No, I hate to say it, no,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said when asked about whether the Atlantic Division crown is important. “It’s nice to win them because it gives you playoff position or playoff shares for the players, I guess, but no. Listen, whether you win it or not, your season will be defined on what you do in the playoffs, for us and them. And the end of the day, it will be nice to have that division [title] somewhere. But it’s all what you do in the playoffs.
“They’re nice to have I guess but they’re not what you should be playing for. But you’re right, I guess at the end of the day, if you haven’t had one or won one, it can’t hurt, especially if that was one of your goals. I know that was one of theirs, so yeah, it was probably important to them.”
The Knicks played with more precision Tuesday night, jumping out to a 58-44 halftime lead despite missing Chandler and Stoudemire. Woodson has stressed the importance of not only gaining a top-half playoff seed but of overcoming the Celtics in the division.
And the Knicks may have sent a message if the two teams were to meet in the playoffs.
Anthony, after dealing with some knee issues the past month, appears healthy, and the Knicks are even more imposing when J.R. Smith is draining shots as he was with 32 points in 35 minutes Tuesday night.
“One of our many goals is to try to win our division,” guard Jason Kidd said. “We have a ways to go but for us to get a big win tonight and go home and protect our home court. This is a team that you could probably face in the playoffs so to know you could win on the road definitely helps.”
The Celtics have issues. They not only have to get healthy, they have to become better defensively and get more production from the bench, which was deplorable after Jordan Crawford entered the starting rotation because Courtney Lee is nursing a sprained left ankle.
The Celtics’ decision to sit Garnett is consistent with their philosophy but they can’t abandon the season, concede victories, and lose the momentum generated after Rajon Rondo’s season-ending knee injury.
“We’re practicing what we preach,” team president Danny Ainge said. “Health over playoff seeding. This is a perfect example. Listen, whomever we play [in the playoffs] is going to be a great team.
“But we don’t have much of a chance if we’re not healthy, especially with Rajon and [Leandro] Barbosa and [Jared Sullinger] out and all the things that have already happened that we have no chance of recovering. I mean if we don’t have our guys healthy that we have left, it’s not going to be fun. We have to be healthy.”