This was no ordinary win for the Boston Celtics. This was a statement to the rest of the league, and perhaps more importantly, a message to the New York Knicks. The message? The Atlantic Division still runs through Boston.
The Celtics topped the Knicks 102-96 at Madison Square Garden without Rajon Rondo on Monday night. Rondo was serving a one-game suspension for making contact with an official during Boston's win over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
So, not only did the C's go into New York and win, but they did it without their second best player in Rondo. Talk about a huge win.
It was a testy affair, with Carmelo Anthony getting so frustrated that he was caught waiting for the Celtics by their team bus after the game. Hey, you'd probably do that too if you had just shot 6-for-26 from the floor against a division rival and seen your counterpart blowing kisses to your home crowd after nailing a dagger with under a minute to go.
It was clear Boston had gotten into the Knicks' heads, and to be honest, it seemed that the C's had never left their craniums to begin with. The Celtics have haunted New York for years and it continued Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Paul Pierce, one of the biggest Knick killers in the league, continued to torment New York, hitting a pair of huge jumpers late in the game to keep Mike Woodson's squad at bay. Kevin Garnett recorded a playoff-like double-double and played mind games with Anthony all night.
Jared Sullinger was as physical as ever, laughing in the face of Tyson Chandler at one point. Jeff Green had one of his best games of the season, stepping up while Pierce was in some foul trouble early and finishing with 16 points off the bench.
Avery Bradley played incredible lockdown defense and scored 13 points while dishing out five assists. Courtney Lee was feisty on D as well, forming a relentless backcourt duo with Bradley.
Leandro Barbosa put in eight points off 3-of-3 shooting in 13 minutes—minutes he never would have seen had Rondo been on the floor.
By now we should know that Boston picks its spots during the season. The C's will coast at certain points, but when they deem it necessary, they can come out and put forth a postseason-type performance.
Monday night was one of those times.
This was an all-in effort by the Celtics. They wanted this game. They wanted to send a message to the Knicks, especially on New York's home floor.
The good majority of the basketball world had counted Boston out after it had gotten off to yet another slow start. For some reason these prognosticators just do not learn. You would think they would after getting proven wrong time and time again each and every year, but they don't.
The funny thing is, that is exactly what the C's want. They thrive in those types of situations. It's almost as if they are strategically messing with everyone's heads, just waiting for pundits to question them and to dismiss them as legitimate contenders.
They are like that deepwater fish that camouflages itself, only to ferociously pounce on any prey that may unsuspectingly wander by.
One thing is for sure though: the rest of the NBA takes the Celtics seriously. Do you think LeBron James and the boys down in Miami are scoffing at Boston's chances? Or, for a more recent example, how about Carmelo and the Knicks? You don't think they know this C's team is something to be reckoned with?
It may happen again this year, too. The Celtics might go through another stretch where they aren't playing their best basketball. They may suddenly look old again. They might get blown out by teams like the Sacramento Kings. Then the legions of doubters will surface again.
As that happens, as Garnett and Pierce watch ESPN or read the paper and see what is being said about them, they'll do nothing but give a sly smirk.
They'll have everybody right where they want them.