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Knicks 88, Celtics 80

Celtics’ comeback vs. Knicks falls short

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the Celtics failed to become the first NBA team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.

JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the Celtics failed to become the first NBA team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.

Beaten down, worn out, finished.

But, then, life – miraculous life.

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Like a haggard, punch-drunk boxer past his prime who somehow picks himself up off the canvas after nine rounds of punishment and starts connecting with thunderous roundhouse punches.

Like an ancient lawman just short of retirement, overmatched and outgunned, but somehow still standing, still shooting, even with a chest full of hot, fresh lead, courtesy of his enemy.

These Celtics just wouldn’t quit. They just wouldn’t die.

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The New York Knicks learned that several times during their first-round series, and they and others were reminded, once again and emphatically, in Game 6 Friday night at TD Garden.

The Knicks punished the Celtics from the start, hammering nails in Boston’s coffin as their lead grew to as large as 26.

But late in the fourth, when it looked like all that was left was for the last rites to be administered, the Celtics rose from the grave, as improbable, and impossible, as it seemed.

Suddenly, the Celtics could do no wrong. Every shot found the bottom of the net. Every Knicks possession resulted in a missed shot or turnover. The Celtics scored 20 straight points, cutting the Knicks’ lead to 6 with 5:43 left, turning the Garden into a delirious, deafening, unhinged madhouse of bedlam.

Historians may look back on that run as the last gasp of these Kevin Garnett- and Paul Pierce-led Celtics, the last bit of greatness for these champions who raised a banner here and whose futures in Celtics uniforms are uncertain.

The Knicks did not wilt. They held on behind Carmelo Anthony, who scored 7 late points to seal an 88-80 win.

New York won the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series, four games to two, and will advance to the semifinals to play the Indiana Pacers in New York Sunday night.

It was the Knicks’ first playoff series win in 13 years.

The Celtics, meanwhile, failed in their quest to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 3-0 deficit, ending an injury-riddled season filled with hurdles they couldn’t overcome.

“You know, we were up and down all year, and it just showed in this series, how up and down we were, game in and game out,” said Pierce, who had 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting in 43 minutes.

Said Jason Terry, who scored 14 points off the bench, “Sometimes the other team is just better than you. They were better than us today and in this series.”

A charged crowd roared chants 30 minutes before tip-off.

The team showed highlights from the Red Sox’ famous comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the 2004 American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees.

And then images were shown of the Knicks wearing all-black funeral attire to Game 5 — a fashion faux pas that insulted the Celtics and became a symbol of the Knicks’ arrogance.

After two straight wins against the Knicks, the Celtics were primed to take a game at home and return to New York for Game 7 Sunday, with a shot at history.

But at the start Friday, they were pummeled.

The Knicks used a 17-1 run to go up, 21-5.

Pierce made his first shot but missed his next seven. The Celtics scored just 10 points in the quarter and trailed by 14.

By halftime, the Celtics had more turnovers (17) than field goals (15).

And by the end of the third quarter, one in which Anthony didn’t score, the Knicks had their largest lead of the game, 20 points, behind contributions from those in supporting roles.

The fourth quarter didn’t seem necessary, especially after a put-back slam by Iman Shumpert gave the Knicks a 75-49 lead with 9:49 left.

That’s when the Celtics played their most spirited stretch of the series. Avery Bradley made a jumper, Jeff Green a pair of free throws, then a 3-pointer, then a finger-roll layup.

Bradley made a steal, then a layup, then Pierce made a 3-pointer, layup, a free throw.

Bradley made a pair of free throws, Green made a free throw, and the crowd was roaring enough to drown out a jet engine.

Twenty points in a row. And then, after a Shumpert layup, the Celtics scored 3 more, coming to within 4 with 4:06 left.

“I never thought they could push that far into our lead,” Shumpert said.

But every Knicks possession started with Anthony from then on. He made a pair of free throws, a jumper, and a 3-pointer with 1:43 left to put his team ahead, 84-75. Ballgame.

“We all said we wanted to leave it out here on the floor and I thought we did that,” said Garnett, who scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 41 minutes.

Said Doc Rivers: “It’s a microcosm of the year. We’d been counted out four or five times this year, when [Rajon] Rondo went down, when Jared [Sullinger] went down, and each time we fought back. And it happened again. And we had our chances.”

Anthony finished with 21 points on 23 shots, but his teammates did most of the damage. Shumpert scored 17, Pablo Prigioni had 14, J.R. Smith 13.

Green had 21 to lead the Celtics.

And now, questions about the futures of Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers, who is never a guarantee to return.

“Well, I definitely expect to be playing next year,” Pierce said, though he noted that it’s up to Celtics management.

Garnett wouldn’t touch the subject, saying it’s too early.

Rivers said as of right now, he’d be back.

So ends the 2012-13 Celtics, and possibly an era, one that delivered one title, nearly two, and revived a franchise.

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