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Gritty Celtics keep going on

BOSTON -- This time, Doc Rivers made sure that Carmelo Anthony did not beat his Celtics. With memories of the Christmas Day loss still vivid, Rivers deviated from his preferred game plan and threw anyone and everyone at Anthony down the stretch.

Dec. 25: Anthony scores 17 in the fourth quarter and leads the New York Knicks to a two-point victory.

Feb. 3: Anthony scores 2 points in the fourth quarter and the Celtics win, 91-89. A visibly upset Anthony throws his headband to the floor and walks off talking to himself after he never touched the ball on the final possession.

After the Christmas game, Rivers said he should have taken the ball out of Anthony's hands down the stretch, which is code for double-teaming. The Celtics generally frown on such tactics -- they don't even double-team Dwight Howard -- but it was clear that Rivers was correct. Down the stretch Friday, there was no such hesitation to swarm Anthony, who entered the game averaging 7 points in the fourth quarter, second in the NBA to Kobe Bryant.

So, with the Celtics clinging to the lead in the final minute, their defense forced the Knicks to turn to the following lads to make the big bucket: rookie Iman Shumpert, second-year player Landry Fields and Steve Novak, who spent the first 47 minutes and 56 seconds watching the game from the bench. Rivers will live with those choices.

Shumpert and Fields both had good looks, courtesy of passes from the harassed Anthony. Novak got the ball in the left corner with the game clock winding down, created some contact with Mickael Pietrus, then threw up a no-hoper. That was the play that had Anthony so incensed, as he was maybe 10 feet away from Novak and briefly open. But he never got the ball.

"I can't even remember that last play," Anthony said. "I don't know what happened."

Here's what happened. The Knicks lost, again, making it 11 losses in the past 13 games, with the two victories coming over the Bobcats and Pistons. They are now 8-15 and battling Toronto and the Nets for the Atlantic Division basement.

The Celtics, meanwhile, are what's happening. This was the team's seventh win in eight games, pushed them to a season-best two games over .500 (12-10) and, frankly, was a game they would not have won a few weeks ago. Rivers said as much as afterward and his players pretty much concurred.

The Celtics were sluggish out of the gate, unable to match the energy of the Knicks, who had played the night before and lost a close game to the Bulls. The Celtics trailed by 12 in the third quarter and you had to wonder if this would be another ugly home loss at a time when they are trying to get some traction.

But then the Celtics found their defensive groove. This team may have trouble scoring points all season, but it has a chance to win games like this because of its defense. Players are starting to get healthy; Rajon Rondo returned after missing eight games and Paul Pierce (30 points) is getting back to the player we've come to expect him to be. Ray Allen had 9 points in the fourth quarter.

The Knicks, after scoring 55 points in the first half, were held to 34 in the second half. They shot 38.5 percent in the second half (34.8 percent in the fourth) and were 0-of-10 on 3-point attempts. Fields said he thought the Celtics' physical play "might have softened us up a bit" in the second half.

What is inarguable is that the Celtics persevered. They didn't so much win this one as they outlasted the Knicks. In boxing terms, they won by a decision. Maybe even a split decision.

"This was a gritty win," said Pierce, who had a 3-pointer taken away after a review by the three officials (who took longer than the Super Bowl halftime show to rule the shot clock had expired). "We didn't play that well. The calls didn't go our way. The calls didn't go their way, either. We found a way to win."

That's what the Celtics of the past four years used to do more often than not. They could win without their A-game because, when it came down to the last several minutes, they always had their defense as a fallback. That defense was missing earlier this season, as Pierce was out and Rivers tried to integrate seven new players with little or no practice sessions.

Now the Celtics are in the top five in the three critical defensive categories: points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and defensive 3-point field goal percentage.

"Even when things are not going our way, we can always rely on our defense," said Pietrus, who has energized the second unit with his defense and his 3-point shooting. (Is it too soon to start calling him MP3?)

With Rondo back and, the team hopes, soon rounding into form, it will be very interesting to watch the Celtics going forward. The game against the Knicks marked just the eighth time this season (in 22 games) that the Celtics have had their preferred starting five on the floor to start the game.

They are 4-4 in those games.

But the encouraging sign for Rivers and Celtics fans is that we're starting to see the team we all thought we'd see. It's still a work in progress and the schedule ahead is brutal. But they're making progress. Anthony was certainly capable of killing them again on Friday night, and it would have been a huge win for the beleaguered team. The Celtics were able to ensure that did not happen, something they weren't able to do not that long ago.

Longtime Celtics writer Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.