The New York Knicks understood this was never going to be easy, no matter what the division standings reported about the state of the Boston Celtics. The Knicks understood that Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would not surrender to age and gravity without a fight, and that Doc Rivers had coached all season just to get his diminished team to this point.
These are the Celtics after all, a franchise that has claimed 17 NBA titles and a team that won't be underestimated by an opponent that has claimed a grand total of two.
But now the Celtics aren't only a 7-seed with proud, graying stars hoping that muscle memory carries them into May and beyond. Monday, bloody Monday changed everything for every Boston institution. Just as the nation embraced baseball's most decorated franchise, the Yankees, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fans everywhere will be pulling for basketball's most decorated franchise to make the kind of charmed postseason run the Yanks made in 2001.
So the 54-28 Knicks no longer have to beat a 41-40 team. In the wake of the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon, they have to beat America's Team, too.
Hating the Celtics and their banners and their parquet used to come naturally; they'd taken five consecutive titles in an Atlantic Division the Knicks hadn't won -- until this season -- since 1993-94. An incorrigible trash talker, Garnett was one of the least likable stars in the league long before his foul mouth compelled Carmelo Anthony to chase him all the way out to the team bus.
Summoning that same emotion for the opposing team and star might take some extra work this time around. Wearing black stripes on their left shoulders in memory of the dead and injured, the Celtics represent a great city that is hurting badly, and one that could sure use a spiritual boost from an underdog sports team expected to go one-and-done.
Rivers, who lives near the site of Monday's bombings, said the attack would not "stop the spirit of Boston." That spirit could inspire the Celtics to a much higher level of play than they maintained in the regular season, when Rajon Rondo's injury and Ray Allen's exit and Garnett's aches and pains didn't keep them from falling out of the playoffs altogether.
"It's going to be a very difficult series for the Knicks," Willis Reed, their old captain, said from his Louisiana home. "Obviously everybody has a lot of sympathy for the people of Boston, and you just can't understand why something like that has to happen. I'm sure a lot of people are going to be rooting for the Celtics to win this series.
"But despite the emotions involved and no matter how hard people root for Garnett and Pierce, it's going to come down to the players on the floor. Making shots and playing great basketball and playing together will be bigger factors than anything else. I still think these games will be won on the court."
And on the court, all things being equal, the Knicks should win the series. Their scoring champ, Anthony, is healthy and in his prime and playing the best basketball of his career. Melo and home-court advantage should be enough to advance to Round 2.
But again, the Boston Celtics aren't the Atlanta Hawks. "The Knicks probably have a little more talent," said Reed, who watches them regularly on League Pass, "but I think it's a great series that goes seven games, a series that probably hinges on which team is healthiest.
"I like Garnett, I like Pierce, and I really admire Doc, and you always have that Celtic pride. But I would be really disappointed if the Knicks lost, and I'm sure the players and management would feel the same way. The Knicks should win this series, but it won't be without some heartburn."
Reed allowed himself a gentle laugh over the phone as he took a break from mowing his grass around the ponds and woods on his vast property in Ruston, La. He grew up wanting to be a Celtic and idolizing a fellow left-handed big man from Louisiana, Bill Russell, who would retire in 1969 after beating Reed's Knicks and then Wilt Chamberlain's Lakers for his 11th title.
Reed hobbled into his first championship the following season, missed the Knicks' victory over Boston in the 1972 conference final with a knee injury, and returned in '73 to beat the Celtics in seven and the Lakers in five for the franchise's second and last league crown.
The Knicks were engaged in fierce rivalries with Baltimore and L.A. back then, but Boston was different. When it comes to New York teams, Boston is always different. Red Holzman told friends the loss in '69 to the Celtics, after Walt Frazier suffered a groin injury, marked the biggest disappointment of his Hall of Fame career.
"It was an intense rivalry," Reed said, "and we wanted to be the elite team they had been. In order for us to do anything good we had to go by the Celtics to get that done, and something always happened when we played a big game in Boston.
"Once our bus driver got lost on the ride from the hotel to the Boston Garden, and Red thought Red Auerbach had it set up. Every time up there we were moved to a different room, and if one was too hot the other was too cold. It was always something to try to distract you. The Boston Garden was not a place where you wanted to play."
Reed recalled Bill Bradley, pacifist, nearly coming to blows with the Celtics' Don Nelson before Game 7 of the conference final in '73. "Bill didn't have a fight his whole career," Reed said, "but he really caused a ruckus that time in Boston.
"But both teams had a lot of respect for each other. I'd go to John Havlicek's fishing tournament every year, and Sam Jones and K.C. Jones were good friends. We all competed hard, but the respect was always there."
In fact, starting Saturday at Madison Square Garden, a respectful, competitive series between the Knicks and Celtics would be an angle worth rooting for. Two great sports towns, New York and Boston, are bonded by separate attacks on their way of life launched about a dozen years apart. So you have Yankees fans singing "Sweet Caroline" in the Bronx after a marathon tragedy that will travel up and down I-95 with this series for the full seven games.
Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he expects Boston fans to "rally around" the playoff team representing their battered town. Reed, the childhood Celtics fan who grew into a Knicks legend, said the latest chapter in this rivalry will produce a series that the favored team "won't be able to hide from."
No, the Knicks aren't only up against Celtics mystique in the first round. They're up against America's Team, too, and nothing will be easy about that.