The Celtics and Knicks were in a close game late in the second quarter Friday when Carmelo Anthony was whistled for a foul. He did not think he should have been whistled for a foul, so he complained and received a technical foul, and then another, and he was ejected.
The Knicks bench looked on in disbelief. The fans at TD Garden howled. The Celtics sensed opportunity.
“We wanted to feed off of that,” point guard Isaiah Thomas said.
The Celtics outscored the Knicks by 22 points in less than two and a half quarters after Anthony was ejected, ultimately cruising to a 115-87 win to snap their three-game losing streak.
A first half that included several here-we-go-again moments as the Celtics were humiliated by the opponent’s offensive rebounds ultimately turned into a needed feel-good night. For the first time in more than a week, Boston’s locker room did not feel funereal.
“For the most part we were playing Celtic basketball,” guard Avery Bradley said, “playing together.”
The Celtics regained some of the feistiness that defined this team’s success last season. They forced 25 turnovers, poured in 18 fast-break points and even gathered 19 offensive rebounds of their own.
This pesky play might have even irritated the Knicks a bit. New York was whistled for a total of six technical fouls, and Brandon Jennings joined Anthony in the locker room after being thrown out of the game in the fourth quarter.
“When we play Celtics basketball, that’s who we are,” Thomas said, “and other teams are just frustrated.”
Thomas had 29 points in just 27 minutes for Boston (4-4), as he was able to rest during the fourth quarter in advance of Saturday night’s road game against the Pacers. After a rusty season debut in Washington on Wednesday, Kelly Olynyk found his rhythm and tallied 19 points and 7 rebounds, and Marcus Smart added 12 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds.
Although the Celtics’ mood brightened after this win, coach Brad Stevens was a bit gloomy during his post-game news conference. He lamented the 21 offensive rebounds that his team allowed and pointed out that there is still so much to fix.
“Regardless of resolve, we have to play better,” Stevens said. “And we were more feisty tonight, but I think we’ll focus on what’s next and try to get better off of that. We started fine, but that’s the way we should play.”
“Until we get our defensive mind-set, until we’re one of the top defensive teams in the league, he’s going to be on us on every detail,” Thomas said of Stevens. “Whether we’re up 20 or down 20, he’s going to be on us. And we need that. We need to be held accountable.”
During their three-game losing streak, the Celtics’ primary inadequacy was their inability to grab defensive rebounds. Teams were pounding them for second-chance points time and again, and at times they seemed helpless.
So the fans here at TD Garden were already on edge, already aware. And when the Knicks gathered five — yes, five — offensive rebounds on one possession while they trailed by 2 points early in the second quarter Friday, the crowd could not take it anymore. There were boos and moans.
But the Knicks were unable to convert many of their fresh opportunities, as they had just 12 second-chance points, eight fewer than the Celtics.
With 4:44 left in the second quarter, Anthony and Amir Johnson went after a loose ball and Anthony was called for a foul. He seemed calm as he approached referee Tony Brothers and voiced his displeasure, and when he continued on after receiving his first technical, he was ejected.
After the game, Brothers told a pool reporter that he had called both technical fouls because Anthony used foul language.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, so when he goes out they probably look to him to go, and to lead,” Thomas said. “And when he goes out that’s a big piece you’re missing, so we wanted to execute.”
Thomas closed the half with a flourish. After the Celtics gathered two offensive rebounds of their own on one possession, the point guard drained a 3-pointer. Then with 34.8 seconds left he hit another 3 before firing a nice backdoor pass to Olynyk for a layup, giving the Celtics a 61-49 lead.
The Knicks briefly pulled within 70-63 on a Derrick Rose 3-pointer with 7:59 left in the third period, but they got no closer. The Knicks made just 5 of 23 field-goal attempts in the final period and committed seven turnovers.
As the Celtics left the arena for a late-night flight to Indianapolis, Bradley was eager to maintain this newfound momentum.
“I’m excited about the game tomorrow,” he said. “I’m going to challenge myself, and we need to all challenge each other to go out there and play hard on the defensive end two nights in a row.”