The game was just eight minutes old when Jayson Tatum — fresh off a 55-point performance in the All-Star Game eight days earlier and a game-winning shot Saturday — blew by Josh Hart and headed to the rim.
As Tatum went up, raising the ball high above his head and starting a tomahawk dunk, Mitchell Robinson appeared in front of him and jumped with him, cleanly smothering the dunk. That was the first sign that maybe this wouldn’t be what we’ve come to expect from the Knicks and Celtics.
The Knicks built their lead to as many as 20 points in the second quarter and then fought off every Boston rally, even if they had most of the 19,812 fans at Madison Square Garden holding their breath.
The Celtics never got closer than eight points, and the Knicks’ 109-94 victory put them in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, a half-game ahead of the Nets and 2 1⁄2 games behind the fourth-place Cavaliers.
The Knicks have won six straight and eight of nine, and if this was a test of just how far they have come, the answer is leaps and bounds from early in the season. On a night when Julius Randle (23 points) and Jalen Brunson (17 points) were not carrying them, they still managed to fight off the Celtics.
Boston was without Jaylen Brown, and with 3:46 left, Tatum was assessed a second technical foul, ending his night with 14 points. He shot 6-for-18 overall and 1-for-9 from three-point range for Boston, which missed 20 of its first 22 three-point attempts.
Still, the Knicks were facing the defending Eastern Conference champions and a team that entered the game at 44-17, the best record in the NBA. So no matter what the Knicks have accomplished this season, as they readied for the game, they were facing a measuring stick.
“Yeah, I think any time you’re going against the Eastern Conference champion, they’re in the Finals, it’s a good test for us,” coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game. “We know we have a long way to go. There’s obviously areas we have to improve upon. We feel if we do the right things, we’ll have a chance to win.”
The Knicks don’t have a Tatum and maybe not even a Brown — but as they have for a long run now, they showed a grit and toughness, spreading up and down the roster.
Robinson had a huge impact defensively and finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds. Immanuel Quickley scored 23 points off the bench and Hart had 12 points, five assists and two steals.
“Boston’s a great team,” Quickley said on the court afterward. “It was going to take a great effort. Boston’s atop the East, where we want to be.”
If Thibodeau didn’t want to speculate about the Knicks’ place in the NBA hierarchy, it was hard to resist. But while they still may be on a tier below the elite teams, they have compiled a 26-14 record since Thibodeau pulled the trigger on lineup and rotation changes, including a 6-0 mark since acquiring Hart and adding him to the mix. In that 40-game span, the Knicks have the third-best net rating in the NBA and the best in the Eastern Conference.
But even with the season down to the final 20 games, Thibodeau didn’t want his players to get bogged down in the standings and their place in them.
“For us, I don’t want to get lost in at different segments of the season,” Thibodeau said. “I just want the focus to be on daily improvement and lock into exactly who’s in front of us. Don’t get lost in anything. There’s a long way to go here.
“We’re heading down the stretch and the intensity is going to be different heading down the stretch here. So we have to respond to that. The challenge is be ready tonight and worry about what comes next the next day. Right now, lock into tonight’s game. You start looking into all this stuff, there could be a distraction every night. So you want to build that discipline of how you prepare for each night.”