BOSTON -- After watching Paul Pierce rattle home an overtime-forcing 3-pointer as part of Boston's 115-111 triumph Sunday at TD Garden, New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni offered a gruff, if not honest, assessment when asked about the big plays made by the Celtics' veterans down the stretch.
"I don't know if that's execution, that's having a horseshoe up your rear," D'Antoni said.
You'd think by now D'Antoni would be a bit more careful with his words. After all, this is the same guy who during last season's playoffs said of Rajon Rondo, "I'd like to see him play in Minnesota and see how he does."
Not bound for Minnesota or anywhere else despite the rumors that swirled last week, Rondo unleashed an historic triple-double (18 points, 20 assists, 17 rebounds) on D'Antoni's Knicks on Sunday, but one of the bigger takeaways from the victory should simply be Boston finding a way to win.
Horseshoe or not, this is the type of game the Celtics would have lost earlier this season. Might this speak to the direction the team is headed in?
Let's start with the negative: Boston never should have needed a late-game triple to force an extra session, but it fumbled away a 15-point second-half lead (this after rallying from a 12-point hole in the first half). Pierce and Carmelo Anthony spent the final two minutes of regulation playing a glorified game of one-on-one that ended with Pierce revising his role of New York villain (sans bow) by willing home a 3-pointer over Iman Shumpert from the top of the arc with 4.9 seconds to go. Anthony then missed with a chance to win it at the buzzer.
In the extra session, Kevin Garnett cranked up the defensive intensity despite playing with five fouls; Ray Allen hit a monster 3-pointer despite a quiet game overall; and Brandon Bass gutted through a rolled left ankle to help Boston pull out the victory.
The Celtics have shown glimpses of their old selves this season when they've played their best basketball, but the familiar late-game execution often has been absent. To find a way to pull out what otherwise would have been a tough-to-swallow loss suggests a renewed confidence, even if it wasn't the prettiest of wins.
"I was upset with about four or five minutes left because I thought we had the game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted. "And we let it go. We just were not disciplined down the stretch, and then we had to get lucky to go into overtime.
"Paul made a good shot. I thought that the last play it was, you know, 'Hully Gully' or whatever you want to call it. We just told our guys to keep handing it off until somebody got free. And Paul made a big shot. But overtime was great. I thought we executed terrifically."
Rivers later suggested that this wasn't a must-win, but you could tell how important it was for the Celtics. Jeff Green, recovering from surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, visited the team and sat next to the coaching staff on the bench. With a national TV audience watching, this was a chance for Boston to reassert itself a bit after stumbling into the All-Star break on a five-game losing streak.
A loss might have been enough to confirm what we thought in the first half of the season: This team isn't a true contender so it may be time to start the overhaul process. Instead, we got another encouraging sign that maybe, just maybe, this team is capable of finding its old magic.
"It's big," Pierce said. "We have to start playing better at home and we have a huge road trip coming up, so we have to take advantage of these home games right now before we go on this two-week road trip."
With the win, the Celtics (19-17) sit only 2½ games back of the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division and are the same distance from the Atlanta Hawks for the sixth seed in the East. Boston, winner of four straight since the All-Star break, is starting to make a move and a case for keeping the nucleus together as the March 15 trade deadline nears.
Garnett, who has preached patience from the start of the season, said the team simply is trying to focus on each game as it comes.
"Honestly, man, we're just taking this one game at a time and we are obviously trying to get better," he said. "Every game is different -- different matchups, different game plans. Honestly, we're not looking [ahead], just trying to take it one game at a time, getting better each game."
But those standing outside the Celtics' locker room in the moments before it opened to reporters could hear the jubilation inside. This is a game the team should have lost, but it found a way to win.
Just like the Celtics of old.
"I guess they're better than blowouts, they're more fun," Pierce said of nail-biting finishes. "The great players, they really like to play in these types of games, they like to step up as you saw tonight. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Rondo, myself, Melo hit some big shots. That's what makes the game of basketball, and these type of games versus New York, so fun because you always see the great players rise to the finish."
The question now is whether the Celtics can be a great team and whether they too will rise to the finish.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.