NEW YORK — For much of this season, the New York Knicks have provided the perfect elixir for a team looking to find its way. Need to find your shooting touch? Go play the Knicks. Need to win a basketball game? Go play the Knicks. Need someplace quiet? Go play the Knicks.
Recently, though, New York has shown that it does have a pulse, that it can still win. In fact, it had won five of seven entering Tuesday night, equaling its total from its first 41 games of the season.
So when the Celtics rolled into Madison Square Garden with a three-game losing streak, they knew it might not be as easy as it has been for so many others.
After recent sluggish starts, the Celtics knew they needed to pounce quickly. So coach Brad Stevens inserted Marcus Smart into the starting lineup and told him to pounce quickly. The move worked perfectly.
Less than four minutes into the game, the Celtics had a 12-point lead. The Knicks provided minimal resistance the rest of the night, as Boston grabbed a comfortable 108-97 win.
“We came out with energy right out of the gate, and that’s what we’ve been lacking,” Smart said. “We got guys out there that compete, and our effort was through the roof.”
It was, for the most part, a feel-good night for the Celtics. Avery Bradley played despite a left thumb injury that has made his hand feel numb. He has told Stevens he will play through it, and on Tuesday he iced the finger, pulled a black sleeve over it, and then made 11 of 14 shots and scored 26 points.
“I can’t really dribble with my left [hand], but like I said, I’m not thinking about it,” Bradley said. “If I think about it, it’ll take away from me being aggressive.”
Jared Sullinger had been mired in a 13-for-41 shooting slump over his last three games. Before Tuesday’s game, Celtics coaches discussed defensive strategy with Sullinger. The offensive instructions were more simple, perhaps to clear Sullinger’s head.
“The only thing we said offensively, all day, was do what you do well and stay with that,” Stevens said.
Sullinger did plenty well. He had 22 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. He scored in the paint, on the wings, and just inside the arc.
Ultimately, though, the tone was set by Smart, and by Stevens’s decision to make him a starter. Stevens knows that Marcus Smart is energetic, physical, and relentless, and after several uneven first quarters by the Celtics, he called on the rookie for a spark.
Just 2:30 into the game, Smart had already drained his first two 3-point attempts. The Celtics were off and running, and the Madison Square Garden crowd was quiet.
The quick burst had value defensively, too. With the 12-point lead, Stevens felt comfortable forcing Knicks star Carmelo Anthony into contested 2-point shots in one-on-one situations. If the score had been reversed and Anthony had found his rhythm, Stevens said, the Celtics probably would have started playing more help defense, daring the Knicks’ perimeter players to make open shots. But this game did not require risk. Anthony finished with 21 points on 9-for-23 shooting.
“They set the tone from the beginning of the game,” Anthony said of the Celtics. “They got in the passing lanes and were aggressive on the defensive end, and they played off of that.”
The 6-foot-4-inch Smart joined a lineup that could have left Boston vulnerable inside, with Bradley (6-2), Evan Turner (6-7), Brandon Bass (6-8), and Sullinger (6-9) rounding out the starting five, and the 6-6 Jae Crowder seeing extensive time at power forward off the bench.
But the Celtics’ toughness was more important than their size, and they outrebounded the Knicks, 39-35. The Celtics also shot 54.5 percent as a team, their first game above 50 percent since a Dec. 26 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Before the game, Stevens declined to commit to this new lineup beyond Tuesday night. But given these results, it would be surprising if anything changed on Wednesday night against the Nuggets.
“[Smart] brings a lot to this team,” Bradley said. “We play as hard as we can and it makes everyone else play hard as well.”
The Celtics were in control for almost the entire game. The Knicks did whittle away at a 15-point second-half deficit, and Shane Larkin’s layup with 8:12 left in the fourth quarter pulled New York within 86-82. But Boston responded, as Sullinger scored on a nice feed from Crowder and added a 15-footer during a 6-0 burst. The lead was never really threatened after that.
Yes, it was against the Knicks. Nevertheless, it was an important win, and it could prove to be important in the maturation of Marcus Smart, one of the few players on this roster who is capable of becoming a cornerstone.