Even as blood flowed and bodies flew, the biggest wound inflicted on the Boston Celtics came from their coach.
Doc Rivers used a word at halftime the Celtics don’t usually hear.
“Doc thought we were soft,” Kevin Garnett said. “He thought our play was soft, he thought everything we were doing was soft and we weren’t the Cs. So we got firm.”
And in the process, they showed the New York Knicks they’ll have to get a whole lot tougher if this was in fact a playoff preview.
Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds, Rajon Rondo added 13 points and 12 assists, and the Celtics scored the final 10 points for a spirited 96-86 victory on Monday night.
The Celtics were bloodied, but it takes much more for them to be beaten.
“We’ve been in every game that you can imagine, big games, so you know we don’t really get rattled,” forward Paul Pierce said. “We know how to respond when the games get testy and physical and sometimes we keep our poise, sometimes we don’t, but tonight we did.”
Pierce scored 21 points and Ray Allen had 15 for Boston despite a poor shooting night and a nasty cut on his head that briefly forced him from the game.
Carmelo Anthony scored 22 points for the Knicks, but neither he nor Amare Stoudemire had a field goal in the fourth quarter. Chauncey Billups had 21 and Stoudemire finished with 16.
“We just got to a point there, I thought we just panicked,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Boston (50-19) matched its victory total from last season and remained tied with Chicago for the best record in the Eastern Conference, seizing control in the final minutes with its trademark tough defense the sensational all-court play of Rondo, who made the tiebreaking basket with 3:10 left.
“We like to say that we’re always going to battles with different teams,” said Allen, who needed seven stitches. “It’s the game that we’re used to playing and we get out there, we’ve just got to make sure that we bring that fight.”
The Knicks lost for the sixth time in seven games and fell to 7-9 since acquiring Anthony last month. And, as with Miami’s occasional struggles this season, New York has concerns about how long it takes a team to figure things out when it has put superstars together.
“Hopefully two, three years,” Rivers joked before the game, and he has his reasons for that wish.
The longtime Atlantic Division rivals could be headed toward a meeting in the first round of the playoffs. New York is in seventh place in the East, a game behind Philadelphia.
This one started to resemble a playoff scrap in the second quarter. Boston’s Troy Murphy had to come out of the game with a bloody nose, and Glen Davis crashed to the court after Anthony caught him in the head with an elbow after grabbing a rebound.
Then, Allen had to leave briefly in the third quarter after his head was bloodied by Jared Jeffries’ elbow while going for a rebound. Allen wiped blood from his head on the court with a towel, not far from where his mother was seated next to Spike Lee in the front row of courtside seats.
“This felt like a playoff game tonight,” Garnett said. “Felt like we were in a bar fight.”
The Celtics took the hits and kept coming, trimming New York’s lead to 69-63 on Davis’ layup at the third-quarter buzzer. They were down nine after Billups’ four-point play with 7:26 remaining but stormed back with 13 straight points, going ahead 86-82 on Garnett’s jumper with 4:20 to go.
The Knicks tied it, and after Rondo’s layup with 3:10 put Boston back ahead, Anthony was cut above the eye after colliding with Rondo trying to steal and inbounds pass. Rondo came up with it as Anthony fell to the court, then found Davis for a layup and a 90-86 edge with 2½ minutes left.
Pierce knocked down a jumper for a six-point lead, and Allen put it away with a dunk to make it 94-86 with 40 seconds to go. He closed it out with two free throws.
“We know that the Celtics are a team that plays very physical, that gives their body up for each other,” center Ronny Turiaf said. “So you know you have to match up their intensity.”
A day after the Knicks managed nine points in the first quarter at Milwaukee, their worst opening period since scoring a franchise-low five on Nov. 21, 1956, against Fort Wayne, Stoudemire had nine by himself after 12 minutes Monday as New York built a 25-22 lead.
The Knicks scored the first seven of the second, capped by consecutive baskets by Turiaf, to open a double-digit cushion. It grew to 45-30 on Billups’ 3-pointer with 3:41 remaining in the half, and the Knicks took a 51-37 advantage to the locker room.
Notes: The teams meet again in Boston on April 13 in the regular-season finale. … Shaquille O’Neal worked out on a stationary bike before the game, though it’s still unknown when he will return from a sore right leg that’s sidelined him since Feb. 1. … The Knicks started Turiaf at center, the third straight game they had a different starter at that position.
Brian Mahoney, AP Basketball Writer