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NEW YORK -- Here we go again.
The Boston Celtics, mired in the muck for much of March and all of April, who seemingly had lost any tangible evidence of the chemistry that so often set them apart from other teams, who, quite simply, could not score the ball, want you to know that everything's fine now.
The evidence is right in front of you: a 101-89 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden that completed the first 4-0 sweep of the 2011 NBA postseason.
C'mon, admit it. You wondered if Ray Allen's legs were shot. You cursed the absence of Kendrick Perkins and wrung your hands over whether Jeff Green could acclimate himself in time to be useful in the "second season." You laughed at the notion that Jermaine O'Neal could contribute anything at all. You bemoaned Rajon Rondo's prolonged funk.
|Paul Pierce and the Celtics had Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni looking for answers after their sweep.|
Even after Boston posted two Ws in the first two games, there was a healthy helping of doubt.
But now, suddenly, the Celtics are behaving like an elite team again. Here's what the upper-echelon, mentally tough clubs do: They close out scrappy, desperate division rivals on their own floor, most likely earning themselves a week off before their next opponent, presumably the Miami Heat, finally takes care of business and punches its ticket for a showdown with their Boston rivals.
To a man the Celtics resisted the notion that they planned to "flip the switch" when the playoffs rolled around. They, too, were worried about their uneven performances, even if they won't ever admit it.
No need. Rondo is back to being a whirling dervish, a triple-double waiting to happen. Allen is back to establishing himself as one of the most feared snipers in the game. The ball movement has resurfaced. The manic defensive effort is intact.
So what gives?
"It's the playoffs," Green shrugged.
Rondo gave a more specific explanation. It's no secret this team struggled to incorporate new personnel into the mix with scarcely any practice sessions available to them. When Doc Rivers finally shut down his starters to provide them a full week before the postseason, the preparation for the proper focus was initiated.
"[We had] time," Rondo said. "Time in practice. Doc shortened the playbook. We kept it simple.
"We went to our bread-and-butter plays down the stretch, and in the first half we ran just one or two sets."
So now the question that begs to be asked is this: Are the New York Knicks that bad, or are the Boston Celtics that good?
Probably a little of both. Clearly the Knicks were decimated by injuries to Chauncey Billups, who never played again after injuring his knee in Game 1, and Amare Stoudemire, who probably shouldn't have played after pulling a muscle in his back. Stoudemire gamely logged 44 minutes Sunday but missed 15 of his 20 shots and was clearly laboring. That left Carmelo Anthony (10-for-24) to once again try to carry his flawed team on his back.
New York checked out shooting 34 percent in its final game and was clobbered off the glass, 53-42, by a team that had trouble rebounding the ball for much of the season.
Here's an indication the Celtics are back in playoff form: Pierce was 1-for-10 in the first half, but Boston still skipped off with a 17-point lead at the break.
Former Celtic Bill Walker tried to warn his Knicks teammates what they studied on film before this series would be something different than what they'd get in the heat of a playoff battle.
"Those guys have got nine lives," Walker said of his ex-mates. "It seemed like every time we got them down, or made a run, they always had another trick up their sleeve.
"You see them on film and they look like they're old and slow, until you get out there and they've got a 7-foot-1 power forward [Garnett] who is more mobile than you think and a point guard [Rondo] who is an emerging superstar and two guys [Pierce and Allen] who never miss big shots. Then you've got JO [O'Neal], who wants to win so badly, and then you realize, they're hungry."
Hungrier than the Knicks, who hadn't been to the playoffs in seven seasons. Veteran point guard Anthony Carter did his best to coax his club back into contention in the final quarter, both with timely shooting and agitating defense on Rondo, but Boston had too many ways to deflate New York.
Garnett submitted 26 points and 10 rebounds, Rondo posted 21 points (on 8-of-12 shooting), 12 assists and 5 boards, and the maligned second unit, led by Big Baby Davis, conjured up 25 points and 22 rebounds among them.
Doc Rivers has seen it all before, both as a losing coach of a championship caliber team and a victorious coach of a title winner. Throughout Rondo's struggles, the coach reasoned it would pay dividends. He felt similarly about the rest of his often maddening crew.
"Adversity is good," Rivers insisted. "It's a good thing. I told our guys we were going to have it and to prepare for it and endure it."
As he watched his team begin to fritter away a 23-point lead late in the second half, a furious Rivers barked at his veterans, "You are getting distracted. You've got to get focused!"
"I heard him," Walker confessed. "I knew what it meant. Doc won't stand for that. He never has."
So we've established the Celtics are hungry again, but will be they be more so than a Heat team that has so much to prove and multiple weapons with which to get the job done?
Boston figures to have seven days to ponder that question. In the meantime, Miami -- which blew its chance to close out its series with the Sixers in four games -- will play on, with one eye warily fixed on that old, slow, dysfunctional Celtics team that, just like the crocuses in springtime, have once again sprung to life.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.