NEW YORK -- When his step-back jumper over Tyson Chandler in the final minute of Monday's visit to New York effectively sealed a victory, Boston Celtics captain Paul Pierce -- as he is wont to do on the Madison Square Garden floor -- smiled and blew a kiss to an audience that couldn't jeer him loud enough.
Just another night on Broadway for Pierce, who in seasons past has soared like an airplane (while Nate Robinson crashed behind him) and taken a midcourt bow after other big shots on the MSG floor.
Pierce smiled again inside the Celtics' locker room on the heels of the 102-96 triumph when asked to explain his impulsive reactions.
"I don't know what I do with a lot of these shots," Pierce said. "I just react. I don't know what I'm going to do. I just react. I don't think about it."
It has been a while since Pierce could break out a positive reaction. After all, the Celtics haven't had much to celebrate over the first third of the 2012-13 season. Inconsistent play and a disappearing defense left the team three games under .500 last week.
But over its past three games, Boston has resuscitated its defense and played a more inspired and consistent brand of basketball. A dominant defensive performance in Friday's win over the Indiana Pacers offered hope and rallying from a 19-point deficit to beat the Hawks on Saturday in Atlanta showed previously unseen resolve.
Monday's game was the real test, however, going against a Knicks squad that entered with a seven-game cushion atop the Atlantic Division. The NBA added a degree of difficulty when it suspended point guard Rajon Rondo for a game after he bumped a game official in Atlanta.
The Celtics could have leaned on Rondo's absence as an excuse. They could have rolled over when Pierce got in early foul trouble (earning his only cheers of the night) and New York built a double-digit lead without him and Kevin Garnett on the floor.
Instead, Boston dug in, leaned on the depth it had compiled this offseason, and scrapped its way back. The Celtics so completely frustrated the Knicks and got under their skin that Carmelo Anthony was left chasing Garnett into the tunnel leading to the teams' locker rooms after the game.
For Pierce and the Celtics, it probably felt like old times. And having worked everyone from Melo to Spike Lee and the rest of the blue-and-orange-clad fans into a full lather, Pierce offered a little smooch to the crowd.
Mwaaaaaaah! The Celtics officially are back.
"It's big for us," Pierce said. "We're starting to put some games together. The Knicks have really been playing well all year long, one of the top teams in all the NBA. It's a real confidence boost when you come in on their floor with the way they've been playing and get a win."
There's a variety of wins over the course of an 82-game season, but this was another substance win for Boston --- in fact, its third in a row. Three victories alone matched its longest streak of the season and pushed the Celtics back to a symmetrical (and far less unsightly) 17-17 on the season.
There was a lot to like about Monday's win. Boston cranked up its defensive intensity when it needed to (limiting the Knicks to 16 third-quarter points after a 35-point second-quarter outburst) and got valuable contributions from all nine players who stepped on the floor.
And they did it all without Rondo.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers summed up Boston's reaction to the latest Rondo suspension -- his fourth in the past 12 months and third for referee-related incidents -- when he said he was "disappointed." Truthfully, this was the most innocuous of Rondo's transgressions --- he wasn't even whistled for a technical foul for bumping referee Rodney Mott after being whistled for an offensive charge in the third quarter on Saturday -- and reports suggest that Hawks GM Danny Ferry might have cost Rondo his chance to suit up on Monday by slipping officials a video of the contact.
Rivers admits the Celtics work on rebuilding Rondo's rebellious reputation every day, particularly given the fact that incidents like this continue to put his team in a compromising position.
But if Rondo's latest incident is Boston's biggest worry, then the Celtics will take it. It means they've cured a lot of what ailed them on the court.
"When you have Indiana and Atlanta back-to-back, then you play the Knicks after that -- to win all three of those games, that's great for our team," Rivers said. "Winning this game here, without Rondo, just tells you our guys hung in there. It's funny, we didn't have much of an offense, just spread. That's all we could run, because we didn't have a lot of sets without Rondo.
"But our defense was fantastic. In the first half, I was upset because I thought we gave up [about] seven 3s that they shouldn't have had, and it was our mistakes. In the second half, we corrected them, we took them off the 3-point line and made them make 2s for the most part. That's what we wanted to do."
And this is how Boston wanted to play from the start of the season. Rivers is hoping Monday's win is a bit of a microcosm: A rough start and a gritty finish that closes with Boston getting varied contributions and making key plays at critical junctures.
"We're just playing decent basketball," Garnett said. "Obviously, we can get better, and that's where we're at. We're just trying to improve as a team."
"We're defending a whole lot better," Pierce added. "We're putting more pressure on teams, we're rebounding the ball a lot better, we're moving the ball, and this is the type of ball we envisioned when we came together. So hopefully we can keep it going."