WALTHAM, Mass. -- As the hype surrounding Wednesday's showdown against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden starts to ramp up, the Boston Celtics playfully chided their Atlantic Division brethren by decrying the use of "rivalry" too soon.
"It's a rivalry?" Celtics captain Paul Pierce asked with a big grin. "Man, y'all are letting me in on all the new stuff, all the talk. I didn't know we had a rivalry going."
With the Knicks, winners of eight straight, playing inspired ball and sitting a mere four games back in the division -- about as close an opponent has managed to stay in the Big Three era -- the "r" word is being tossed around freely after years of lying dormant.
"Hey, if that's what y'all want it to be, if it'll sell more tickets and get more viewers, then I guess so," Pierce said. "[The media makes] up the rivalries, we don't. To be honest, New York is playing well, they're in our division, and both teams are streaking, so it's going to be an exciting game."
But the Celtics cringe a bit at the suggestion of a rivalry considering it hasn't been much of one in recent years.
"I don't know what it is, this rivalry thing, it hasn't been one," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who played for the Knicks from 1993 to '95. "We both were bad for a while. Now we've been good for a while. The two teams haven't exactly matched up for a long time. You know when they do, it will be great."
That could come Wednesday when the Celtics put their own 10-game winning streak on the line in the nationally televised matchup. But asked if he liked having a little divisional competition, Rivers playfully squashed that talk as well.
"I kinda liked it the other way," Rivers said. "Let's hope it goes back that way. I think any game with meaning -- for them it will have a lot more meaning, they're probably extremely fired up for this game and I hope our guys will match that intensity. But any time a game has energy, it's great. I think it's really great for us. Finding ways to get [the Celtics] up is nice, when you don't have to do it. We'll let the New York people do it by what they'll say over the next two days."
The Celtics-Knicks rivalry as a whole is one of the most storied in the game. They have met 440 times during the regular season and 138 of those -- a whopping 31.4 percent -- have been decided by five or fewer points. The teams have also met 12 times in the postseason, with both sides winning six series. Of the NBA's original 11 teams, only three remain in the Celtics, Knicks and Warriors (who relocated from Philadelphia to Golden State).
While the Celtics have represented the Eastern Conference in two of the past three NBA Finals, though, the Knicks haven't won a playoff game in nine seasons. So coach Mike D'Antoni isn't buying rivalry talk either.
"We haven't done anything yet," he said on Tuesday after practice at the team's facility. "Wait until we do something and wait until we've threatened them. I don't think [the Celtics are] thinking, 'Oh what a threat this team is.' So we're not there yet."
Amare Stoudemire agreed with his coach, stating that the Knicks (16-9) needed to earn more "respect" around the league before they can rekindle any old rivalries.
"We gotta make our mark first before we start any rivalry," he said. "[We're] just getting started regaining some respect here as a team; we got no room to start rivalries right now."
If nothing else, Rivers & Co. acknowledge that it's something special to play in Madison Square Garden.
"I just know that, when the Knicks are playing well and there's energy in the building, it's fun for everybody," Rivers said. "I loved it as an opponent, I loved when I was playing there. It's the only [original] building alive, as far as older buildings. It has it in it. It has the feeling inside, you can feel that."
Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal was not on the court when Boston started its session Tuesday morning, which seems to indicate that he's not quite ready to return to full team activities. O'Neal had been working out on his own all last week, doing on-court activities in hopes of rejoining full team workouts this week. O'Neal has missed 15 straight games with lingering soreness in his left knee.
Celtics center Shaquille O'Neal, who has missed the past two games with a sore right calf, said he's "getting better," but Rivers said the team would evaluate him during Tuesday's practice before determining if he can play Wednesday against the Knicks.
"We'll see what he can do in practice today and, if he's good, he'll play," Rivers said. "If not, we'll probably sit him again."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley was used in this report.