For unto you two a rivalry is reborn

NEW YORK -- Amare Stoudemire was not going to be Trent Tucker on this night. He was not going to defy logic and all laws of time and gravity to sink the winning 3-pointer against a Boston Celtics team he had all but beaten to a pulp.

Of course the shot went in the basket -- it was launched by Stoudemire, after all, greatest forward in the world. He caught the inbounds pass with 0.4 seconds to play, turned, fired and inspired the kind of sound Madison Square Garden hasn't unleashed since Larry Johnson made his forever four-point play.

The refs said the shot came too late, that Stoudemire took a millisecond or three too long to jump from 39 points to 42 points and to extend the Knicks' winning streak to nine. As the refs scanned the replays for conclusive evidence to make their case, Paul Pierce took a devilish little stroll to midcourt.

Pierce was the one who had scoffed at the idea that his Boston Celtics had any rivalry going with the New York Knicks, and guess what? He was right. The Knicks have been a practical joke for the vast majority of Pierce's career, and they didn't deserve to be elevated as some sort of legitimate foil.

But as the refs were checking the replays that would settle this wild and wonderful basketball game, the brand of regular-season game this building used to stage on muscle memory, Pierce did something that marked the birth of the very thing he'd maintained did not exist.

The Celtics star faced the south side of a Garden crowd that was standing and waiting and murmuring, like a boxing crowd dying to hear the judges' scores after a big heavyweight fight. Pierce planted his arm against his belly button, took a bow and then repeated the gesture for the north side.

The fans booed. It was Pierce's way of assuming the role of villain, of delivering the choke sign Reggie Miller once gave the Knicks.

So some of that bad Yankees-Red Sox blood is finally boiling around the city game. As surely as there is a Santa Claus, Virginia, there could be an honest-to-God rivalry between the Celtics and the Knicks.

"Boston-New York is a rivalry in every sport, no matter what the situation is," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a former Knicks guard who adored New York as much as any player who has come through here.

"And when the two teams are playing like this, it sure helps. But I just think the two cities, they can play croquet and people are not going to like the other team."

His tie knot loosened, Rivers stood outside his team's locker room, savoring his team's 11th straight victory. But as a guard on Pat Riley's best New York team, the '93 team, the one that should have beaten Michael Jordan's Bulls in the conference finals, Rivers was savoring the experience just as much.

"Tonight reminded me of those 'Go New York, Go New York' days," he said. "It's not as feverish as it was in [the '90s], but it's getting there. You can feel it coming in this building, and I love it.

"I love this atmosphere. I love the fact that people are talking about the Knicks. I think it's good for our league."

Celtics-Knicks -- the way it used to be -- would be better for the league. Celtics-Knicks the way it was when the two Reds, Auerbach and Holzman, took great pleasure in ruining each other's night, week and season.

Boston has 17 championships to its name, and New York only two. The Knicks haven't won it all since 1973, and the Celtics have won it six times since.

Stoudemire and Raymond Felton aren't going to alter the dynamic of Knicks-Celtics overnight, and yes, a loss is still a loss. But it was worth nothing that Stoudemire (39 points, 10 rebounds) outplayed Boston's old man river, Kevin Garnett (20 points, 13 rebounds), who did make some big plays in the closing minutes, and that Felton (26 points, 14 assists) outplayed Boston's whiz kid, Rajon Rondo (10 points, 14 assists).

Pierce (32 points, 10 rebounds) was the Celtic the home team couldn't account for, a truth he hammered home on Boston's final, fateful possession, when he sank his step-back 14-footer with four-tenths of a second to play.

"We had them all night," said Stoudemire, who cracked 30 for a franchise-record ninth straight time.

"You never enjoy losing … especially game winners. They tend to linger a little bit longer, but Boston respects us. They know how good we can be and how good we are. We will see them again."

Stoudemire is a most credible speaker. He wasn't just saying it; he meant it.

"I guarantee you that Boston respects us," he said. "We are not slouches. We are going to play every single night until the horn goes off, and Boston knows it."

Felton had predicted a "dogfight," and a dogfight the Celtics got. The point guard hit a running 3-point banker to beat the halftime buzzer and ran some Steve Nash-like pick-and-rolls with Stoudemire in the fourth.

If the Celtics were reeling for much of the night, they reminded the Knicks they know how to act like closers in June, never mind December.

This game wasn't quite pulled out of the 2003 or 2004 American League Championship Series but at least Mike D'Antoni's Knicks did a better job honoring their end of the New York-Boston bargain than, say, Rex Ryan's Jets did.

The Knicks quite literally ran out of time against the Celtics, and then Paul Pierce took his villainous bows. For the good of the game, it felt like a rivalry was born.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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