Updated: January 8, 2013, 3:04 AM ET

1. Celtics, Knicks Enliven Atlantic Chase

By Beckley Mason

NEW YORK -- With their bruising 102-96 victory against the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks, Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics conjured memories of the Celtics teams that lorded over this division since Garnett came to Boston six seasons ago.

The Knicks still held a seven-game lead in the standings coming into the game and, though both teams were without their starting point guards, the absence of Rajon Rondo, who was serving a one-game suspension for bumping an official Saturday night against Atlanta, hung heavily over the game.

But as Knicks coach Mike Woodson put it before the game, "Anytime Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are in uniform, that's a problem."

Woodson's pregame speech would become heartbreaking reality when Pierce drilled a fading 21-foot stepback over the outstretched hand of Tyson Chandler to all but seal the game with 45 seconds left. It wasn't the first time Pierce has done in the Knicks on their home floor, having also hit a jumper to bury the Knicks in December 2010. Monday's shot was like a herky-jerky nightmare come back to haunt the New York crowd; a reminder that it's a long season and the 17-17 Celtics aren't dead yet.

Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett
Debby Wong/USA TODAY Sports Melo and Kevin Garnett heated up the Garden.

Pierce scored eight of his 23 points in the final quarter of a game that turned physical in the second half when Carmelo Anthony, who scored 20 points on just 6-for-26 shooting, and Garnett were both given technical fouls for excessive trash-talking. Perhaps seeking to continue their discussion, Anthony went to the Celtics' locker room after the game. The two stars clashed repeatedly in the fourth quarter as both teams alternated shoving and grabbing each other all over the court.

It was a vintage display of what Celtics coach Doc Rivers dubbed before the game "that old New York 'D,'" in reference to the Pat Riley Knicks of the 1990s. "I like that," Rivers added with a smile.

Rivers, however, had to wait for the second half to see his team's brand of basketball. After a sluggish start, the game picked up in the second quarter when the Knicks went to their "four wings and Tyson Chandler" lineup and starting raining 3-pointers. Both teams scored more than 30 points in the period, and the Knicks dumped in eight triples as the pace quickened and the game swung toward New York's style.

But the second half, and ultimately the game, belonged to Boston. Toward the end of the third quarter, guards Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee combined to administer sweltering ball pressure to the Knicks' aging point guards, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, who are playing more minutes while starting point guard Raymond Felton's hand heals. As the Knicks' pick-and-roll attack fell apart, the Celtics kept grinding away with their steady diet of midrange jumpers and isolation attacks.

"They did everything in terms of applying pressure up the floor," Woodson said. "We couldn't really get into our stuff."

J.R. Smith, who led the Knicks with 24 points and was especially productive during the first half when he often acted as the de facto point guard, noted the difference. "[They] made us start the ball pretty much at half court," Smith admitted.

Over the past two seasons, that disruptive ball pressure has been the calling card of the Celtics' defense when Bradley has been healthy. In three games this season coming into the game against the Knicks, Boston has starved opposing offenses when Bradley is on the court, allowing just 86.5 points per 100 possessions. How good is that? Indiana has the best defensive rating in the NBA this season at 98.9 points per 100 possessions.

Though New York has unexpectedly been the class of the division thus far, this was just the type of game one might have expected from the two teams before the season started.

Back then, Jeff Green and the revamped Boston bench looked ready to give the Celtics' aging starters more cushion than in previous seasons. Though Green and fellow sub Lee have struggled this season, both came through with Rondo out. Green contributed 16 points, attacking Steve Novak one-on-one when the Knicks tried to go small and Lee was the kind of disruptive athletic force that Boston has been sorely missing in recent seasons.

Meanwhile, Anthony appeared to let his emotions get the better of him and took a number of very difficult jump shots during the fourth quarter, going just 2-for-10 in the final period. Those two makes, a pair of 3-pointers that sent Madison Square Garden into a frothing frenzy midway through the fourth quarter could not rattle the Celtics' cool execution down the stretch. All told, the Celtics accumulated 26 assists on their 39 made field goals.

Because Garnett, Pierce and Rondo remain from Boston's glory days, it's easy to forget that this current Celtics team includes only five players who played real minutes last season and that it would take time for the new group to take on the physical, disciplined identity that has so defined the Garnett-era Celtics.

Now, in just four nights, Boston has beaten three of the East's top four teams. Far from the aging, toothless squad we saw in the season's first couple months, more and more Boston looks like the team many predicted it would be, one capable of another deep run into the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Beckley Mason's work appears regularly on Hoopspeak

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