The NBA roared back to life on Christmas Day with a slough of exciting games, tipping off with an epic matchup between two Atlantic Division rivals, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Boston came into the game winning its last eight contests with the Knicks, while New York entered the game loaded with returning starters Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, now supported by new addition Tyson Chandler and the Knicks' supporting cast.
Despite Rajon Rondo's breakout game and a phenomenal performance off the bench by new Celtic Brandon Bass, the Celtics were without captain Paul Pierce due to a heel injury, hindering their effort against the Knicks and spelling the difference in this contest.
Boston came up just short, losing 106-104 at MSG on a missed game-tying shot by Kevin Garnett as time expired.
With 48 minutes of basketball now in the books, what can the Celtics take away from their regular-season opener?
Let's take a look at some of the things the Celtics learned in their early loss to the Knicks.
Maybe hearing all that trade talk finally got to Rajon Rondo. Maybe he looked back at the mistakes he made in the playoffs last year and decided to toughen up and get better. Maybe he just did a little soul-searching.
Whatever happened this past offseason, it made Rajon Rondo have an outstanding game against the Knicks. Rondo scored a career-high 31 points and dished out 13 assists for yet another double-double.
This time, however, Rondo appeared far more efficient in all areas of his game, especially shooting. Rondo shot 11-for-19 from the field and made several nice jump shots. He was also 9-for-12 from the charity stripe.
Rondo clearly fine-tuned his game during the lockout, and it's paying dividends now.
He may not play like that every night, but if he can continue to shoot well from the field and the foul line, he may prove to be just the franchise player the Celtics need to build around for the future.
Brandon Bass was acquired by the Celtics to help shore up their interior defense (which got eaten alive against the Miami Heat last May) and add some veteran depth to the bench behind the aging Big Three.
Against the Knicks, Bass was brilliant off the bench, scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in 28 minutes of play. He looked solid at both ends of the floor, and showed great poise and aggressiveness even against a ruthless (and much bigger) Amar'e Stoudemire.
If Bass can play consistently at this level, he'll quickly become a solid second option at the power forward position and play valuable minutes in place of Kevin Garnett. Bass plays much bigger than his listed size, which may prove invaluable come playoff time.
Say what you will about the officiating in this game.
Sure, the refs essentially let Carmelo Anthony do what he wanted out there today, giving him the whistle at nearly every touch of the ball and allowing him to run over every defender in his way.
That being said, I honestly don't believe that either Sasha Pavlovic or Marquis Daniels are good back options at the small forward position behind Paul Pierce.
Sure, they're only the only options the Celtics have until Mickael Pietrus arrives (which is hopefully sooner rather than later), but they're certainly not the ideal options by any stretch of the imagination.
They lack the athleticism of Pierce or Pietrus, and they certainly can't play defense like them. And, although this is obvious, none of them have the scoring prowess of Paul Pierce.
Here's hoping that Mickael Pietrus passes his physical and is ready to go as soon as possible. I know it's only one game, but I already feel as if he'll end up being the go-to guy off the bench for Pierce.
This is another obvious observation, but the single biggest reason the Celtics lost to the Knicks was because they were without Paul Pierce.
We can go back and forth for weeks about his absence. One might argue that had he played, Rajon Rondo might not have had such a fantastic game, or that Brandon Bass might not have showcased what he was capable of.
I can see the validity of these points of view, but ultimately I think most can agree that had Pierce played, things would have turned out differently. There's no doubt, at least in my mind, that the Celtics would have come away with a win on the back of the combined contributions of Pierce, Rondo and Bass.
There's no way Carmelo would have scored all 37 of those points. Pierce would have done a much better job defending him than Marquis Daniels and Sasha Pavlovic did.
And I have a feeling that if after 47-plus minutes of basketball the Celtics were still down 106-104, the ball would have been in Paul Pierce's hands.
Hopefully Pierce will make a speedy recovery and return soon. With such an old team, everyone needs to be healthy in order for this team to be real contenders.
Without Paul Pierce, the Celtics just aren't the same.
After ranting about injuries on the previous slide, this slide may seem a bit out of place. But with everything I said about health being the key to the Celtics winning games, they still managed to go toe-to-toe with a much younger Knicks team full of stars in their prime.
The Celtics were down by as many as 17 in the first half. They could have easily mailed it in for the day, came out and said, "Heck, it's Christmas," and gone on to lose by a wide margin.
But that was not to be. The Celtics roared back into contention in the second half, leading by as many as eight before the Knicks found a way to win in the final few minutes thanks to some questionable officiating and a final push by Carmelo Anthony.
Still, even in defeat, the Celtics stayed in it right up to the end and gave the Knicks' superstars problems for much of the second half.
The Celtics never backed down, and it's these types of performances, even in defeat, that show that the Celtics will be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference at least one more time.