NEW YORK — They gathered at center court in a gym at Columbia University Friday morning and each raised a hand toward the middle. “1-2-3, together,” they said.
And then the Celtics broke their huddle and commenced their final practice before opening the playoffs Saturday against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
But while the Celtics are here, their hearts are back home, where a city was under siege as legions of authorities conducted a massive manhunt and captured a suspected Boston Marathon bomber.
“The city’s crazy, man,” Kevin Garnett said. “Everybody’s kind of trying to at least focus a little bit on, obviously, our game and the playoffs, but the obvious is everybody’s worried also.”
Members of the Celtics received calls and text messages from concerned friends, family, and others, just as they did Monday when the bombings occurred.
The team left Toronto for New York Thursday. Still, owner Stephen Pagliuca woke coach Doc Rivers at around 6 a.m. Friday, asking if he was OK. Rivers said he was fine, then turned on the TV.
He said he couldn’t turn it off or go back to sleep after that.
“It’s really sad stuff,” Rivers said. “You just want it to come to an end.”
Rivers said a game is what’s best for the team right now.
“Honestly, for us, getting on the floor is good medicine,” he said. “It gets you focused on your job.”
The players said they are playing for more than just themselves.
“When you go through tragedy as a city you kind of look for something to cling on [to], and I really believe that the city of Boston lives and dies with our sports teams,” forward Paul Pierce said.
“They’re going to be watching closely and there’s just a sense of pride about the city, a sense of pride about this team to go out there and kind of play well and do the best we can for the city in the wake of the tragedy.”
Knicks guard Jason Kidd expects emotions will run high — for everyone.
“Hopefully we can give people relief for two hours,” the 40-year-old said, “but at the end of the day, what happened is tragic.”
The Celtics swept the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs in 2011. They they meet under far different terms Saturday, as the Knicks are the No. 2 seed and Boston is No. 7.
The Knicks also won the regular-season series, 3-1.
“We are [the underdog],” Garnett said, “The Knicks are a better team. They deserve [to be the favorites], they’ve earned it, and rightfully so. They’re playing with a lot of confidence, and that’s what you want going into the playoffs.”
But the Celtics have not been playing well heading into the postseason, losing six of nine to end the regular season while Garnett and Pierce sat for stretches to rest or heal injuries.
Garnett had said that he felt rusty, that his timing was off after missing eight games with inflammation in his ankle. “I feel pretty good, I feel really good,” he said Friday.
Rivers said he’s “always worried about rhythm” with Garnett because it can take Garnett awhile to regain it after a long layoff. “Kevin will be ready,” Rivers said.
But aside from Garnett, Pierce, and Jason Terry, the Celtics don’t have much playoff experience.
“A game can be fatal in a series like this where little, small mistakes can cost you, so we’ve got to understand the concentration we’ve got to have, the focus that it’s going to take, the things that you did during the long regular season,” Pierce said. “It’s just not going to be the same.”
Rivers said he isn’t sure how those newcomers will respond, though.
“I think you’ve got to learn by fire,” he said.
Terry is encouraged.
“They’re as ready as they’re going to be and we’ve got tremendous confidence in them,” he said. “They’ve made tremendous strides over the year. You talk about Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, these guys are prepared and ready for the challenge.”
Either way, the already-intense rivalry should be racheted up for the playoffs. “So much is on the line,” Pierce said.
In terms of pace, Pierce said he expects a “grind-it-out game, defensive battle.”
He added, “As much as we want to run, for some reason in the playoffs, the scoring goes down because the defense tightens up.”
Boston will use as many as three defenders on Carmelo Anthony, who led the NBA in scoring this season (28.7 points a game). The plan is to make him work for every point.
Rivers and others were asked if they thought the events in Boston would take the edge off the series, as both teams had been given a strong dose of perspective.
Rivers thought not.
“I was laughing yesterday, I played here, so I know the mind-set of a New Yorker, and hearing, ‘Good luck, Doc!’ ‘Hey, Doc, we love Boston!’ I mean, I almost ran into a cab last night,” he said.
“But I know what they mean, and they mean the city. They ain’t meaning the Celtics. I get that 100 percent. Even a worker at the Four Seasons said, ‘I want you to know I’m a Boston fan.’ And then she turned around: ‘Today.’ And I was thinking, ‘That’s what this is all about.’ ”Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes