If you take anything away from this Kevin Garnett-Carmelo Anthony fiasco, let it be this: The Celtics have their swagger back.
We're not just talking about wins, although the two are certainly intertwined. During the Garnett era, Boston has had a way of getting under opponents' skin, in large part because of its overwhelming success, but that bumptiousness had all but dried up amidst a roller-coaster start to the 2012-13 season.
Early this season, 19-year-old rookie Bradley Beal -- he of the NBA-worst, five-win Wizards -- suggested Boston was "vulnerable." Celtics coach Doc Rivers called his team "soft" after a particularly volatile November loss to Brooklyn, then later admitted opponents had no reason to fear his squad given its inconsistent nature through the first 30 games of the season.
And just when you started to wonder whether Boston would ever find its braggadocio again, the Celtics ripped off three turn-back-the-clock victories over a four-day span. Now they are strutting around like it's 2008 again.
It started with last week's handcuffing of the Indiana Pacers, a 20-point triumph in which Boston's defense finally showed signs of its old self. But that merely lit the fuse. The Celtics rallied from a 19-point hole to top the Hawks the next night in Atlanta. Reports suggest Atlanta general manager Danny Ferry was so upset he pursued the referees after the game (he was fined $15,000 for "inappropriate interaction with game officials," which might have contributed to Rajon Rondo's one-game suspension for bumping a ref).
Playing without their star point guard in the biggest game of their season so far, the Celtics put together a resolve-filled effort Monday night. The Knicks led by double digits in the first quarter with Paul Pierce in foul trouble and Garnett on the bench, but the team's role players helped Boston rally ahead by the end of the frame. New York unleashed a 3-point barrage as part of a 35-point second quarter, only to find itself clinging to a three-point lead at halftime.
The Celtics smothered the offensive-minded Knicks in the second half, forcing Anthony -- the freshly minted Eastern Conference player of the week -- to endure his worst shooting performance of the season. Garnett's physicality with Anthony in the fourth quarter so infuriated the MVP candidate that he chased after him following the final buzzer, screamed outside the Celtics' locker room and stalked the Boston bus before security got him out of the arena.
But here's the thing: No matter what Garnett did or said, it probably wouldn't have mattered to Anthony if the Knicks had won the game. Rarely does anyone go pursuing an opponent for a postgame confab after a gritty loss.
No, the Celtics were the instigators, and they backed up their trash talk by playing inspired late-game defense and making clutch shots. After inserting the dagger, familiar Gotham villain Paul Pierce blew kisses to a Madison Square Garden crowd that erupted in boos whenever his name was announced.
You can sort of understand why opponents are losing their cool with Boston. The Celtics have been a different team since the return of Avery Bradley at the start of the month. Bradley absolutely hounds opposing ball handlers (unlike Anthony, it only seems like his suffocating defense follows opponents onto the team bus) and makes simply getting into sets a difficult task.
Garnett and Pierce keep defying their age and -- at least for one night in New York -- Boston got exactly what it envisioned from its revamped bench. Again, it's one thing to talk trash, but you have to be able to back it up. And that's what really gets under an opponent's skin.
And if Anthony has issues with Garnett, he probably should just get in line behind the likes of Joakim Noah, Charlie Villanueva and, well, about half of the league (and that might be too low an estimate).
For his part, Rivers downplayed the trash talk Tuesday.
"Everybody talks. I think that talking stuff is so overblown," Rivers said. "If you spend time tonight, watch the [New York] game, and look at who was doing more talking. And all Kevin did was say something back. But the talking is so overblown to me. Talking's been going on since, hell, before I even started playing. Larry Bird was one of the biggest trash talkers in the league."
Is Rivers surprised trash talk gets to opponents?
"No, I'm not. Guys don't like it," he said. "Some guys don't, some do. Some guys respond. I think we're in this 'everyone has to have the last word now' [phase], maybe. I don't know. But that should never carry over."
Whenever the Celtics encounter adversity, Rivers implores his team to "get past mad" -- the suggestion being that you can't allow yourself to get hung up on anything but the task at hand. Anthony might have been so wound up by Garnett's talking that he lost sight of trying to win the game and ultimately tried to drag Boston into the mud.
"Honestly, I thought at the beginning of all that, it was the middle of the fourth, we looked like we had a chance to take the game to another level, lead-wise, and it got chippy," Rivers said. "New York turned to that because that's what they tried to do to get us -- and I thought it worked for them at the beginning of it.
"And then it came down to which team got back to playing first, and we were the team. And I think that's why we won, so I was really happy with that, because on the road it's easy to lose it once you have a lead and you compose your stuff. I thought we caught ourselves, which was a good sign."
The Celtics want to put opposing teams in position where they can't catch themselves. That's exactly what happened two games in a row -- and it's rarely happened this season. Now, having matched a season-high three-game winning streak and bracing for a five-game homestand, Boston appears to have its swagger back.
Suddenly this team doesn't look vulnerable or soft. In fact, it sort of looks like its old self and the type of contender most envisioned when the roster was assembled this offseason. And opponents probably don't like that either.