These two old rivals could well meet again in the NBA’s one-game, play-in event. Maybe then the slumping Knicks could turn this recent heartbreak into a something joyful.
Another defensive slugfest turned bitter and sour at the end as the Celtics rallied from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit and eked out a 101-99 victory over the Knicks at TD Garden on Wednesday.
The Knicks have lost five of six games and are now 2-8 in contests decided by three points or fewer this season. Losing nailbiters to top teams has been their recent modus operandi. Just ask the Nets, Sixers and Heat.
“It’s annoying losing these two-point games,’’ RJ Barrett said. “They’re frustrating and annoying.’’
A wide-open Marcus Smart hit the game-clinching 3-pointer with 35 seconds left to break the tie. Knicks shooting guard Reggie Bullock decided to double Jayson Tatum (25 points) on the play and leave Smart open. The Knicks paid the price.
“Anytime you commit to putting two on the ball, you’ve got to understand what you’re willing — you’re going to be vulnerable in another area,’’ Knicks coach Thibodeau said. “You don’t want to give up open shots. And so, they have two dynamic scores in Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown. So you go in with you’re game plan. You know that, particularly in the fourth quarter, you have to be committed to putting two on to them, so that’s part of it.’’
There was no Knicks magic left after that. After Smart’s dagger, Knicks sixth man Alec Burks missed a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left. Down four, Burks was denied again, getting blocked on a drive in the lane with 10 seconds to go to clinch the loss.
“I don’t know if it’s part of the trend,’’ Thibodeau said of the down-to-the-wire defeats. “Usually you can figure out why you either win or lose. It was a hard fought game. We felt one of the big keys would be rebounding and obviously that hurt us.’’
Indeed, the Knicks’ dominance on the boards this season is evaporating. Boston battered them, 61-47, collecting 16 offensive rebounds. One of those came down the stretch, when Smart caught an airball underneath and laid it in — a giant bucket with two minutes left.
“I think the defensive glass hurt us,’’ Julius Randle said. “We just got to when the shot goes up find bodies. Take care of the glass that way. We knew we were a great offensive rebounding team going in and it showed today. We got to lock in more.’’
If the season were over now, the Celtics and Knicks would meet in the No. 7-vs.-No. 8 play-in game, in the NBA’s new format, to qualify for the actual playoffs.
The Celtics are now in seventh place at 26-26. The Knicks fell to eighth place at 25-27, with the Grizzlies on tap at the Garden on Friday.
The Knicks blew a seven-point lead in the final 8:12 — and the defeat spoiled Barrett’s gem. Barrett shot 6-for-6 on 3-pointers to finish with 29 points. Barrett, however, also committed a costly turnover. He lost his dribble in the left corner, which led to a Brown fast-break layup to put the Celtics in the lead at 93-90 with 1:01 left.
“We lost,’’ Barrett said, not taking any solace in his perfect deep shooting night.
Randle put up big numbers —22 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals — and led a third-quarter surge with a series of fast-break buckets. But ultimately he went just 9-for-23 from the field.
Randle denied his thigh injury is hampering him at all.
“Not too frustrated,’’ Randle said of the Knicks’ 1-5 stretch. “We’re not going to get too much out of frustration. We have to find out what the problem is and figure it out.’’
Thibodeau knows it’s rebounding for the moment. Former Cavalier Tristian Thompson (three offensive boards) did a number on the Knicks in the first half on the glass, with Boston’s grit making up for not having point guard Kemba Walker, who doesn’t play back-to-backs because of a bad knee.
“They actually they started small,’’ Thibodeau said. “But their quickness to the ball, and we knew with Thompson coming back, that that would be a factor. So you’ve got to finish your defense.’’