BOSTON -- This is no longer about the Boston Celtics and the parquet and the banners above, all of that mystique fading like a distant plume of Red Auerbach's cigar smoke. The Celtics used to be everything the New York Knicks were not -- functional, professional, driven to win it all -- and now they are just a lousy seventh seed in the East, a good team gone old.
So it doesn't matter if the Knicks sweep them Sunday, or eliminate them on the rebound in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. The 2013 Celtics aren't the 2004 Red Sox, who had the talent to erase an 0-3 deficit against the Yankees and make history doing it.
The Celtics? They barely have the talent to get the ball across midcourt.
The Knicks have already advanced past them in their hearts and minds. No, they weren't about to say that Friday night after their resounding 90-76 victory at TD Garden, if only out of respect for Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, proud Celtics who stayed together one season too many. The Knicks were hoping for a quiet return to their hotels in a city that doesn't need any end-zone dancing from opponents right now, and in a series too benign for the foolish ejection earned by J.R. Smith, who summoned his wildly immature past with a knockdown of Jason Terry.
"Be humble," Mike Woodson told his players before they left the building.
They'll be humble in public, but make no mistake: The Knicks are already weighing their second-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, maybe even their third-round matchup with the Miami Heat, and who could blame them?
Carmelo Anthony is playing the best ball of his life, and threatening to prove he can win the same championship ring in the pros he won for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. Raymond Felton delivered a brilliant floor game Friday night when he scored 15 points and dished out 10 assists and again attacked the basket with a vengeance, albeit against Celtics guards who don't belong in the gym.
Pablo Prigioni is getting smarter by the possession, and suddenly he's making a few jumpers, too. The Knicks are also getting healthier, and playing with more fire (thanks to Kenyon Martin) while other teams (Oklahoma City now among them) are physically falling apart.
"Everybody is willing their way to the wins," Anthony said. "The guys that we have in the locker room, in the hotel, you look at guys, I mean, guys are hungry. We really want this and we feel like it's right there in the palm of our hands."
If nothing else, with Russell Westbrook going down, the Knicks might be declaring themselves as Miami's most dangerous opponent; they were, after all, 2-0 against San Antonio this year.
First they have to finish off the Celtics, no difficult task even for Carmelo Anthony, who entered this postseason with eight first-round losses in nine first-round series as a Nugget and Knick.
"To accomplish that," Melo said of a sweep, "would be spectacular, it would be a dream come true. I've never swept anybody."
He probably won't be saying that late Sunday afternoon, as Game 3 appeared to be the one the Knicks were destined to lose. Though the Celtics had embarrassed themselves by scoring a combined 48 points in the second halves of the first two games, a return home was expected to alter the dynamic of this series.
The Celtics hadn't played in TD Garden since the deadly April 15 bombings at the Boston Marathon, and an emotional crowd and moving on-court tribute to first responders was supposed to create a rush of adrenaline that would be hard for the Knicks to stop. A home Game 3 was supposed to inspire Pierce and Garnett to play young, and the struggling role players to play loose and free.
Instead the Celtics were booed off their own floor at halftime, down 47-31. These were sad sights and sounds for a crowd that showed up expecting so much more. The Knicks have been playing good fundamental defense this series, but the Celtics have turned them into the Ray Lewis Ravens, circa 2000.
So it's clear now that Danny Ainge made a big mistake keeping this team intact, the same Danny Ainge who tweaked old man Auerbach for holding on to Bird, Parish and McHale after that holy hoops trinity had passed its expiration date. Sure, a healthy Rajon Rondo would've changed part of the narrative here, but the ending would've read the same.
The Celtics walked into Game 3 knowing they hadn't recovered from an 0-2 hole in a best-of-seven since 1969, and they walked out knowing they wouldn't be reversing the trend. The Knicks are going to claim their first playoff series victory since 2000 because Anthony is finally ready to make a deep postseason run, and because Felton and the rest seem eager to go along for the ride.
"The beauty about our team," Woodson said, "is somebody has always stepped up when we needed him. And to me that's the sign of a team that's committed, that's together, that's trying to do one thing, and that's win a title."
These Celtics won their title in 2008, and they won't be winning another one. If they had any shot to gather themselves in the third quarter, Prigioni, a very poor man's Jason Kidd, took it away from them in a flash.
Terry had the ball on the fast break with a chance to cut the Knicks' lead to single figures, with the crowd rising in anticipation, and Prigioni came out of left field to steal his dribble. Down the other end, after the 35-year-old point guard ran down a long offensive rebound, Anthony sank a dagger of a 3 that made it 52-38.
When it was all over, after some loud New Yorkers had filled TD Garden with chants of "M-V-P" for Melo and "Let's go Knicks," Doc Rivers conceded his Celtics "really lost our spirit for a minute." Only the Celtics didn't lose it; their opponents took it from them.
Once upon a time, against all odds, the Knicks won a best-of-five from the Larry Bird Celtics in the old Boston Garden on an absurd corner fallaway from Patrick Ewing. No such shot will be required in this series.
The Knicks are better than the Celtics, as in much. On truth serum, Melo and friends would admit that Boston is already in their rear-view, that a championship feels a bit more realistic, and that Indy and South Beach are straight ahead on the road to who knows where.