NEW YORK -- By the time Carmelo Anthony stormed off the court at the final buzzer and went looking for the Celtics' Kevin Garnett near the Boston locker room to resume shouting the unpleasantries they'd snarled at midcourt with about nine minutes left in this game, it was clear what was really irritating the Knicks.
The Celtics have long had what they want. This was the Knicks' first chance this season to start making a statement to Boston about how this season's Atlantic Division race is going to turn out -- or at least as much of a statement as any January game can make when Boston point guard Rajon Rondo was a late scratch and the Knicks' Amar'e Stoudemire is just back from an injury.
And instead of running Boston off the Madison Square Garden court, the new-look/older-than-dirt Knicks surprisingly got schooled a little themselves, 102-96, in an emotional game that was heisted by Paul Pierce and Garnett -- the only Celts who, as the joke now goes, are almost ancient enough to play for the Knicks.
"I thought both teams lost control," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "We let it get to us."
"If it was the playoffs, I'd tell on him," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Anthony after the Knicks star began shouting at Garnett in the hallway that runs between both team locker rooms underneath the stands and, according to two sources, had to be held back from rushing him.
"I have no recollection of any of that," Knicks forward Marcus Camby deadpanned. "Melo is the MVP of the league. He's not going to do anything stupid."
Anthony almost did. The Knicks were lucky he settled for a couple stare downs and shouting matches with Garnett rather than throwing a few uppercuts. But there was a lot for the Knicks to be frustrated about besides Anthony's 6-for-26 shooting performance on a night both he and Pierce (23 points) were in and out of foul trouble.
Neither team had its starting point guard. The Knicks are still without Raymond Felton (broken finger) and late Monday afternoon, the Celtics were slightly surprised to learn Rondo had been suspended for bumping a referee ever so slightly on Saturday in Atlanta. Yet the Knicks, more than the Celts, struggled to get into their offensive sets or play stiff defense. And still this game was laying there, waiting to be won.
"We just lost our composure," Tyson Chandler said, "and didn't execute as well as we could have."
Woodson, to his credit, never seemed to abandon two goals in this game. He wanted to win it -- badly. But he's also trying to get the Knicks through the very necessary process of assimilating Stoudemire back into the lineup as quickly as possible, even if their 18-5 start that shook up the NBA has melted into a 5-6 record over their past 11 games.
And it's a little awkward right now for everyone involved.
Anthony is now the franchise player on this team and he's never giving the role back. Stoudemire has seen J.R. Smith slide into the scoring role off the bench that many people had forecast for him, and Chandler takes the pick-and-roll plays Stoudemire used to feast on. But the Garden fans remember how Stoudemire came to New York two years ago when no other big star would take the Knicks' money and how he declared, "The Knicks are back." And they're clearly pulling for Stoudemire now.
When Stoudemire rose to enter the game for the first time with just over seven minutes gone in the first quarter on Monday night, he got a rousing cheer. When Woodson left him on-court to finish the game alongside Chandler and Anthony, it was another little benchmark in his comeback. So much for the speculation Stoudemire will be handcuffed from now on to a limited role with the second unit, not crunch time.
All told, Stoudemire played just a few ticks under 28 minutes -- nearly double the previous high of 16 he got the other night in Orlando, his third game back. Though Stoudemire seemed to find his legs more as the game went on against the Celts, his play was often hit or miss. He had a couple dunks scattered in his 13 points, but his rust showed when he also went up for a shot in traffic and basically blocked his own shot by jamming it into the side of the rim.
His explosiveness still hasn't come all the way back.
All of it -- like everything else the Knicks were lacking -- just became a little more glaring because Anthony finally had an off night and still this game was there for the taking.
The Knicks just couldn't go get it, no matter how hard they stomped and fussed and wanted to fight the Celts. But Woodson's determination to get what he can get from Stoudemire will pay off down the line.
If the Knicks win as much with Stoudemire as they did without him the first two months, then his job description, his $99 million contract and worrisome injury history or when his minutes come will be a footnote. The same goes with Woodson's lineup tinkering. But Stoudemire's presence will be blamed if the Knicks fall back to ordinary. And everything that happens the rest of this season will be cast against the promise the Knicks showed during their thunderclap start without him.
Stoudemire wasn't the reason the Knicks lost Monday night. Maybe later in the season, when they see Boston again, he'll be ready and game fit enough to be the reason they win, even on a night Anthony is cold.
But for now, on this night anyway, the Celtics reminded the Knicks how they've been able to go out and get what the Knicks now want: the division titles, the championship run, the chance to throw a scare into the Miami Heat and maybe even win the East. While Stoudemire was trying to find himself, Pierce did. And while Anthony -- who left the Garden without speaking to reporters -- was fighting mad, Garnett settled for merely fighting back to win the game.
"That's just basketball," he said.
Woodson was blunt when asked what the Knicks are going to have to do if they really want to win the Atlantic Division instead of the Celts.
Said Woodson: "[Games like] this can't happen."