Earlier this week, the Celtics plunged a long blade deep into the heart of the New York Knicks.
On Friday night, the Celtics grabbed the handle and twisted it a little, just for fun.
Both Celtics’ wins might have been more satisfying for their fans if the Knicks weren’t such a sad, dysfunctional waste of talent, but the Celtics will gladly take the pair of notches in the win column.
But Friday’s victory came about in different fashion than the one earned six days earlier in New York, where the Celtics slaughtered the Knicks by 41 points at Madison Square Garden, their largest victory there ever.
No, the rematch at TD Garden fell on Friday the 13th, so of course, it was a thriller.
The Celtics came out on top, again, 90-86, but, to them, it still tasted just as sweet after they came back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter, closing the game on a 22-7 run.
“This team is No. 1 in our division for a reason,” Knicks guard J.R. Smith said of the Celtics.
The win snapped a two-game Celtics’ skid and bumped the team’s record to 11-14. The last-place Knicks fell to 6-16.
“Games like this build character,’’ said Celtics guard Courtney Lee, who scored a season-high 18 points in 19 minutes off the bench. “The group that’s out there, we learned to trust each other. We’ve been in these situations before. The only way to get out of them is to continue to fight and to continue to stay together.
“I mean, beating a team by 41, that all looks nice and whatnot, but showing that character and that toughness and togetherness out there, these games mean a lot more.”
Celtics rookie coach Brad Stevens harped on how the win was a learning lesson.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but that’s exactly what our team needed,” Stevens said. “We needed to have a lead, lose it, be backed up against the wall, and figure out a way to win.”
Indeed, the Celtics haven’t fared well in roller-coaster games. They’ve played hard to the end, but they haven’t always found a way to come out on top after blowing a sizeable lead.
The Celtics used a 21-2 run to take a 17-point lead in the second quarter against the Knicks, and it looked like the game was going to be a carbon copy of Boston’s matinee massacre at MSG.
But the Knicks, with their bloated $86 million payroll, decided to show some spine, using a 41-17 run to take a 69-62 lead with 3:10 in the third quarter.
The Knicks led, 79-68, with 10:12 in the fourth quarter, and it appeared as if they might hang on. But then the Celtics started roaring back behind their bench. Phil Pressey hit a jumper, then fed Gerald Wallace for a layup, and Vitor Faverani sank a 3-pointer.
The Celtics kept coming, and the Knicks started to wilt.
Finally, Avery Bradley hit a 3-pointer from the right corner with 2:38 left that gave the Celtics their first lead of the quarter, 86-84.
When it sank through the net, the Garden became a raucous madhouse.
Faverani made a layup after that, capping a 20-5 run, and the final twist of the dagger came when Jeff Green made a layup over Smith with nine seconds left.
“Early in the season, if we had this type of game, we lost a couple of them,” said Green, who scored 8 points. “Now we learned from the beginning of the season and we know how to correct ourselves and put ourselves back in position to win the game.”
Carmelo Anthony scored a game-high 26 points, but he was 1 of 8 in the fourth quarter.
“You have to realize you’re away, on the road, and these teams aren’t going to give up,” said the typically shot-happy Smith, who only took one shot in 26 minutes.
But the Celtics still had some mistakes to overcome.
They had 16 turnovers the Knicks cashed in for 16 points, compared with the 8 points the Celtics scored off 7 Knick turnovers.
Celtics point guard Jordan Crawford also had an off night.
Over the last seven games prior to Friday night, Crawford averaged 19.1 points on 47.5 percent shooting, but he missed all eight of his shots, including five from 3-point range, finishing with 2 measly points.
Jared Sullinger scored 17 points in the first half, but had just 2 in the second when he was saddled with foul trouble.
Typically, the Celtics would lose any game in which a key player struggles, as they just don’t have the talent and firepower to make up for such a gap.
In circumstances like that, Stevens said, “what you want to do is tighten, tighten it even more, stay together, become even more accountable, more resilient, and even tougher together, and that was what happened tonight.”
It was the kind of win that, as Green said, the Celtics wouldn’t have pulled off earlier in the season. If anything, it was another sign of progress, a term that is foreign to the Knicks these days.