Carmelo Anthony lay on the Madison Square Garden floor as blood dripped from his left eyebrow. The blow was the final, lasting image of a night when the Knicks and Boston Celtics traded elbows, shoves and leads in what could be the precursor to a first-round playoff matchup.
Anthony had collided with Rajon Rondo as they jostled for an inbounds pass near midcourt. Anthony lay stunned on the court as Rondo expertly navigated the lane and passed the ball to Glen Davis for a jumper that stretched Boston’s lead to 4 points with a minute remaining.
Again, the Knicks’ defense collapsed, allowing Boston to rally from a 15-point deficit and post a 96-86 victory Monday night. The Knicks have lost three straight games and are 7-9 since trading for Anthony. There is little relief on the horizon as Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic will visit the Garden on Wednesday.
The Knicks (35-35) are .500 for the first time since February, when a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers dropped them to 26-26.
Coach Mike D’Antoni expressed concern about how his team faltered in the final minutes.
”We just got to a point there, I just thought we just panicked,” he said.
As the loss settled in, Anthony watched from the bench and attended to his eye. ”It just got out of our hands a couple plays down the stretch,” he said.
Anthony scored a team-high 22 points but had only 5 in the second half. Amar’e Stoudemire added 16. Neither Anthony nor Stoudemire had a field goal in the fourth quarter.
”We have to keep playing the way that we play to get the lead,” Stoudemire said. ”We can’t all of a sudden change our method in the fourth quarter or the second half.”
D’Antoni said: ”I’m getting to a point where we got to figure something out, because it’s not real good right now, obviously. And there’s no reason why we can’t figure it out. We got two scorers on the floor like Amar’e and Carmelo, then we got to do a little bit better job.”
With 12 games remaining, the possibility of a Knicks-Celtics playoff pairing is real. It will be an abbreviated first round if the Knicks and Anthony do not quickly adapt to one another.
If the teams meet again, both will have added motivation. Jared Jeffries glanced Ray Allen with an elbow in the third quarter, leaving Allen with a cut above his right eye while his mother, Flora Allen-Hopson, watched from a courtside seat next to Spike Lee.
Earlier in the game, Anthony grabbed a rebound and struck Davis with an elbow that left Davis momentarily dazed.
Later, Anthony’s hard foul sent Paul Pierce sprawling.
”It was a bloodbath, but it was beautiful,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. Allen’s cut added to his frustrating night. He shot abnormally poor: 5 of 16. Pierce was limited by foul trouble but still managed 21 points, including a key shot with 55 seconds left.
After Pierce’s shot, Toney Douglas missed two 3-pointers and Shawne Williams missed one.
Kevin Garnett led Boston with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
An earlier Pierce 3-pointer, Boston’s first, brought the Celtics to 4 points behind, at 82-76, with 6 minutes 45 seconds left. The shot came shortly after Chauncey Billups converted a 4-point play, created when Rondo fouled him as he made a 3-pointer, to give the Knicks a 9-point lead.
Garnett tied the score, 82-82, on a layup, and Boston (50-19) did not trail again.
The Knicks returned home after dreadful losses to Detroit and Milwaukee. Anthony performed better Sunday against the Bucks after sulking during a poor performance against the Pistons.
Against Boston, Anthony started efficiently and made quick decisions. He scored 7 points before he picked up his second foul and sat the rest of the quarter. In a display of their erratic play, the Knicks scored 9 points — their total in the first quarter against Milwaukee — in the first 3:27 against the Celtics.
The Knicks opened the second quarter with a 14-4 run. Ronny Turiaf supplied energy with two baskets, and Anthony picked up where he left off. He finished the first half with 17 points.
Anthony indicated Sunday that it could take until next season before the Knicks blossomed into a quality team. The Knicks’ president, Donnie Walsh, disputed that notion.
”Yeah, I don’t want to hear that,” Walsh said of Anthony’s statement. ”I understand what he’s saying, because you put it in the context of really good teams are together for a long time. We’re trying to compete against some teams that have been together for a long time. That’s like an uphill fight sometimes.”
PHOTOS: Amar’e Stoudemire, right, and Kevin Garnett chasing a loose ball. Their teams are on track to collide again in the playoffs.; Paul Pierce had 21 points for the Celtics, who scored the game’s final 10 points. The Knicks are 1-6 in their last seven games. (PHOTOGRAPHS BY BARTON SILVERMAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES)