Celtics weather the Knicks' best shot

BOSTON -- Think about all the fortuitous things that had to happen for the Boston Celtics to win Game 1 of their series against the New York Knicks, most of which occurred in the final frantic minute of Sunday's 87-85 victory.

A perfectly executed inbounds alley-oop that took five-tenths of a second. A very timely offensive foul on Carmelo Anthony ("What I thought and what they called are two different things," Anthony said) and an equally timely non-call on a Kevin Garnett pick leveling Toney Douglas and freeing Ray Allen for the game-winner ("A tough no-call," said Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni. "I'm not happy about it.")

A vintage game from Allen (welcome back, Ray, by the way), who made the winning hoop with his 15th shot of the evening. It seemed like he didn't take 15 shots the entire month of April.

And then this: "We won the game because of Jermaine O'Neal."

Doc Rivers said that -- and he was right. What was your personal over/under on the number of months that would transpire before you'd ever hear such a line? Or was it years instead of months?

Somebody was smiling down on the Celtics on this Palm Sunday evening at TD Garden. Shaq made an appearance on the bench, but it was "other" O'Neal, the one rarely talked about, who showed up with a uniform on. Jermaine O'Neal watched more than he played, but he was a defensive beast when he was out there (four blocked shots, two charges taken). His contributions also included 12 points (on 6-of-6 shooting) and four rebounds in 22 minutes, 34 seconds.

"He was big out there for us," Paul Pierce said of O'Neal. "Just his presence in the middle is going to be big for us with Shaq out."

The Celtics also don't win this game without making the conscious decision to play some defense in the second half. Who knows why these things happen? It's not like the Celtics don't know they need to defend. Then they go out and Timberwolf the second quarter, allowing 28 points, resulting in a 12-point deficit at the half.

Rivers said he didn't make a single change coming out for the third quarter. There was no come-to-Jesus oration. "We just did what we were supposed to do," he explained. The evidence is pretty convincing.

Knicks first half: 51 points, 54.3 percent shooting, 62.5 percent 3-point shooting, 11 assists.

Knicks second half: 34 points, 32.6 percent shooting, 20 percent 3-point shooting, 5 assists.

"Defensively, we joined the playoffs in the second half," Rivers said. Amen.

The Celtics feel like they simply manned-up when they needed to and had the collective wisdom and experience to pull off Sunday's escape. (They trailed for a large portion of the final three quarters.) In a way, this one resembled the playoff opener last season, when the Celtics played a sloppy first half, fell behind Miami by double digits, then rallied to win. They've been through a lot of games like this one.

"We've been together a while. We're a veteran ball club," said Pierce, who made the pass to Allen for the game-winner. "Regardless of how bad we were shooting or how bad we were playing defense, I thought down the stretch we found a way to win and that was because of our experience."

The Knicks, meanwhile, feel like they did everything possible to win the game and somehow got short-changed at the end. They played excellent defense; in the first half alone, the Celtics were forced into two three-second violations and two shot-clock violations. Boston, the league's best shooting team over 82 games, shot 43.8 percent. The Celtics scored 87 points. Most nights, that's not good enough.

The Knicks survived the expected Celtics' run in the second half and were up by three points with 37.8 seconds remaining following a Douglas 3-pointer. But then came the alley-oop, the offensive foul on Anthony (5-of-18, including 1-of-11 in the second half) and the big 3-pointer by Allen. In less than one minute, all the good the Knicks had accomplished in the previous 47 minutes was wiped away.

"They didn't do nothing special," Anthony sniffed. "They won Game 1 on their home court. They did what they're supposed to do."

Each game in a playoff series takes on a life of its own. The Miami Heat felt the same way last year after Game 1 and then got trampled in Game 2 by a Kevin Garnett-less Celtics team. So while the Knicks talk openly of being confident and excited, one game doesn't necessarily provide a window to the rest of the series.

Game 2 could be different in that Chauncey Billups may be unable to go. He strained his left knee in that final minute (what else could go wrong, Knicks fans have a right to wonder) and was in pain and limping afterward. He said he had "no clue" as to his availability for Game 2.

This much is known. The Knicks played a very good game, had the Celtics on their heels for most of it, and yet have nothing to show for it. The Celtics, to borrow a Johnny Most phrase, "fiddled and diddled" for 24 minutes and arrived fashionably late to the show. Then they made up for the lost time.

That's what winning teams do in the playoffs. The Celtics have done it 39 times over the past four years. For the Knicks, it's another 48 hours until they can think about winning their first playoff game in nearly a decade.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.