NEW YORK — The front-row view from Madison Square Garden's top level is partially obstructed by glass, so small televisions are in place to give fans a more clear look at the action. On Friday night, many of those TVs were switched to the NCAA Tournament, tuned to something more enthralling than the Knicks.
For the majority of New York's game against the Celtics, you could hear the constant murmur of conversation, like a crowd in a theater waiting for a performance to begin. The difference was that this performance was well underway, and the people watching it were mostly indifferent.
But for the Celtics, this night was just as important as any other in this final stretch. They are not playing for a selection committee; they are playing for a playoff berth. Although they were not spectacular, they did not need to be. They simply took a 96-92 victory and maintained their tenuous hold on the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot.
"Any win from here on out, we need," forward Jae Crowder said, "so we don't care if it was pretty or good."
The victory strengthened the Celtics' playoff portfolio, if only slightly. They are now just one game behind the Miami Heat for seventh place. The Brooklyn Nets, who gathered an impressive win over LeBron James and the Cavaliers on Friday, remain just a half-game back in the race for eighth. The Pacers trail Boston by a full game. The Hornets are 1½ games back.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has maintained that he pays little attention to the congested standings. But the regular season's end is 10 games away, and several players have admitted that they can't help but steal glances. And you can't blame them.
"In the game, they've got the scores up there, so I take a peek when I can," said guard Isaiah Thomas, who rattled off the Friday results from Miami's, Charlotte's, and Brooklyn's games.
The Celtics will need Thomas during this final surge, and against the Knicks he started to resemble the player who was a revelation after being acquired from the Suns on Feb. 19.
Thomas missed eight games with a bruised lower back before returning against the Heat on Wednesday, and in that game he was uncharacteristically tentative, and he struggled. He practiced Thursday and felt more comfortable Friday. Then he took the court and tallied 18 points and six assists.
"I think the biggest thing for me was mentally," Thomas said. "Today, I just went in, and if it hurt, it hurt. I wasn't scared of getting hurt or falling."
Brandon Bass added 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Celtics, and Crowder came off the bench for 17 points and nine rebounds. Andrea Bargnani had 25 points to pace New York.
If you are curious what Madison Square Garden sounded like for much of this game, just sit in a quiet room when you read this sentence and you'll have an idea. One fan in the arena's upper reaches tried to start a pair of "Let's go, Knicks" chants in the opening half. But his request elicited no reaction, other than a few chuckles about the fact that it had elicited no reaction.
There had been concerns about the Celtics' ability to get motivated for lesser opponents, particularly after players admitted that Dwyane Wade's absence Wednesday caused their intensity to dip at the start. And now here they were in a staid atmosphere against the Knicks.
But after a sleepy opening quarter, the Celtics found their way. They took their first lead, 26-24, on a Jonas Jerebko 3-pointer with 9:42 left in the second quarter, and never trailed after that.
Boston led by as many as 11 points in the first half before a jumper by Shane Larkin with 2:11 left in the third quarter cut the lead to 63-60. The Celtics regained control with a 7-0 burst that was capped by a Thomas 3-pointer.
"He got back to almost looking like his normal self," Crowder said of Thomas. "His shots weren't short. He got a good lift. You can tell he's getting back to normal."
The Knicks made one final push, scoring 9 points in the final 34 seconds, but the Celtics held off the late surge and held on for the win. The road now gets tougher for Boston. There are no more Knicks or 76ers on the schedule. Now, they return home to face the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday before visiting the Hornets the next night.
"Every win," Thomas said, "is gonna be tough."