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NEW YORK -- Like a play that opened off Broadway, the New York Knicks knew the ending before it unfolded Wednesday night.
Some had seen the closing scene unfold during runs in other cities, but the entire team got an in-person sneak peek a little more than two months ago when the cast swung through New York in mid-October for a limited engagement.
On Wednesday, Paul Pierce and his Boston Celtics castmates returned for another Big Apple performance and didn't miss a step. The scenes unfolded virtually identically to the preseason preview: A seesaw battle with a late rally by the antagonist, closed out by the villainous Pierce coldly burying a late-game jumper to steal a win.
|Paul Pierce (team-high 32 points) was flying high after sinking the Knicks with his last-second shot.|
Try as they might, the upstart Knicks could do little to alter the climax. An arena shaking with emotion for more than 2½ hours went silent as Pierce did a familiar home run trot across the famed Madison Square Garden parquet, his 14-foot jumper over Amare Stoudemire having lifted the big bully Celtics toward another victory in a still-lopsided rivalry between Atlantic Division foes.
Many fans didn't even stick around for the cruel twist at the end, trickling out into the cold before referees even reviewed Stoudemire's just-missed-the-buzzer 3-pointer that came after what Pierce admitted was his lone misstep: leaving a fraction of a second -- four-tenths, to be exact -- on the clock.
And while it was to merely scattered boos and a couple of groans from what remained of the sellout crowd to witness the official declaration of Boston's thrilling 118-116 triumph, Pierce, like any good performer, took a bow before departing the stage. (Nate Robinson wasn't nearly as graceful, nearly suffering a face-plant while trying to leap on Pierce's back after the winner.)
"I love these type of environments," Pierce said. "It's rare when you get these type of environments in the regular season. There's only so many games you circle on the schedule, where you say, 'Hey, this is going to be a playoff-type atmosphere, a playoff-type game.' The guys on this team know what they are and this was definitely one of them. We love these games."
No one more so than Pierce. Pierce's production was hindered in recent games by a bout of flu-like symptoms, but coach Doc Rivers noticed new energy in Pierce during Tuesday's practice. Pierce engaged in extended games of one-on-one with his teammates, a surefire sign the ultra-competitive captain was feeling like himself again.
He further proved it by pouring in a team-high 32 points Wednesday, connecting on 10 of 18 shots, while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out four assists over 40 minutes, 33 seconds of action. But no basket was sweeter than the vintage Pierce isolation that silenced the crowd.
After rallying from a double-digit, third-quarter hole, the Celtics refused to go quietly, even as the Knicks scored at will at times during the fourth quarter. Stops finally came when it mattered most, Kevin Garnett forcing the seemingly unstoppable Stoudemire (39 points) to miss a short jumper with 13.1 seconds remaining.
Pierce came down with the rebound and called a timeout. Not that one was needed. Everyone in the building knew what would happen next. In fact, the Knicks anticipated the play and seemed to force Pierce into a more difficult shot.
It didn't matter. Even as the Boston bench playfully predicted the play as it unfolded, the Knicks were unable to alter the outcome.
Coming off a pick-and-roll with Garnett, Pierce drew single coverage from Stoudemire and, unable to drive to the basket, set up his familiar step-back, putting the 7-foot defender on his heels before lofting the 14-foot winner through the twine with 0.4 seconds to play.
"It's funny. We wanted a switch, but we actually got the switch on the initial part," Rivers said. "Paul had [6-1 guard Raymond] Felton on him to start with, but I had already called the pick-and-roll part because we anticipated a switch. We had just told Paul, 'Get to your sweet spot, use the whole clock, and either win the game or go into overtime.'"
He chose the former, even if he left a sliver of time that delayed the celebration.
"I knew what I wanted to do," Pierce said. "We ran the pick-and-roll, going to the right. I was a little surprised that Amare actually gave me the right. He played me to go right. I thought he was up so far on me, to where I could get a layup, so I tried to go for the layup and he cut it off. I was able to create the space and get the shot."
Rivers actually wanted to wave off the pick-and-roll once Pierce drew Felton as the play started. But he couldn't get his team's attention, and he's glad he didn't.
"Honestly, if I could have waved Kevin off, I would have because you know Paul can shoot over Felton," Rivers said. "But Paul, in the locker room, said he would actually rather have the big guy because he thought he could get his step-back.
"Scorers know more than me. I was never a scorer."
Pierce is a scorer, and he again played the role perfectly Wednesday.Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.