In a game that featured an epic 15-point comeback, about a dozen hard fouls and three players suffering bloody facial wounds before the night was done, the Celtics emerged with a dramatic victory over the Knicks. The playoffs may still be three weeks away, but there was a playoff atmosphere at Madison Square Garden all the same.
The Celtics didn't just win a game at MSG on Monday. They won a war.
"It was a bloodbath," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I thought it was beautiful."
The C's fell behind big in the first half, as Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire absolutely manhandled their second unit on both ends of the floor. The Knicks' two stars combined for 28 points in the first half; the Celtics were held completely scoreless for a six-minute stretch early in the second quarter. The C's hit rock bottom when Troy Murphy took a Ronny Turiaf elbow to the face and had to leave the game. Casualty number one.
The Celtics trailed by as much as 15, as a Turiaf three-point play early in the second half made it a 54-39 Knick advantage. But much the same way they did Saturday night in New Jersey, the C's found the toughness to fight back, erasing the deficit with the perfect combination of aggression and unselfishness.
"We just decided to play," Rivers said. "Honestly, I haven't used the word 'soft' in four years with this team, but tonight, that word came out a lot. But we just played basketball. We didn't make one adjustment. Not one. We just played in the second half. We played the way we're capable of playing. We played with a sense of urgency, we were more physical, and we made some shots."
The game got extremely physical in the second half. Ray Allen took a Jared Jeffries elbow to the head and had blood streaming from the corner of his right eye; he had to leave the game. Casualty number two. That energized the Celtics, who charged back with a series of stops and timely jump shots to close the gap.
The C's first tied the game at 82-82 midway through the fourth. They outscored the Knicks 14-4 the rest of the way to reach an 96-86 final, but not before Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony collided at center court going for a loose ball, and Anthony was taken out with a bloody gash above his eye. Casualty number three.
There's winning, and there's winning ugly. There's also winning downright angry.
"Maybe that's what it took," Rivers said. "I don't know. I think they were a little disappointed at halftime. They were probably a little disappointed with what I had to say — I told them I'd like to see the Celtics play again. But they knew that. With this group, you don't have to tell them that. They knew that that's not the way we play."
The Celtics weren't themselves in the first half — lazy on offense, unpoised on defense, rolling over and dying in a big game they really wanted to win.
So when things got violent, the Celtics got going.
"We've been in these types of atmospheres," Paul Pierce said. "We've been in these types of wars. So we know how to handle ourselves. We don't lose our composure. We've been in every game that you can imagine, so we don't really get rattled. We know how to respond when the game gets testy and physical. Sometimes we keep our poise, sometimes we don't. But tonight we did."
The Celtics are now 3-0 this season against the Knicks, including 1-0 against the revamped edition, starring Carmelo. These games mean a little extra something nowadays, and the C's are rising to the occasion every time.
With the playoffs just around the corner, that's exactly what you want to see.