But it ended with a final burst of merriment and in the N.B.A.’s first game since June.
Carmelo Anthony, playing in his first opening day as a Knick, scored 37 points, including the go-ahead free throws with 16.3 seconds left. The debut of the Knicks’ towering new frontcourt was a success, with Amar’e Stoudemire adding 21 points and Tyson Chandler providing just enough paint presence to make it all stand up.
Along the way, the Knicks built and squandered a 17-point lead, lost Iman Shumpert to a knee injury and, most significant, got the attention of a Celtics team that played without Paul Pierce.
“We showed something today,” Anthony said, adding later, “This is a new beginning for us.”
Anthony carried the Knicks for long stretches and was dominant when it mattered most, scoring 17 points in the fourth quarter. He was efficient, too, going 10 for 17 from the field and 13 for 15 from the line, while grabbing 8 rebounds. His only blemish was in the turnover column, with five.
The Knicks were fortunate to get the victory after giving up 35 points in the third quarter, when the Celtics turned a 12-point deficit into an 8-point lead. The Knicks tightened the defense in the fourth quarter, holding Boston to 17 points, then rode Anthony’s hot hand to the finish.
“We fought,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s not always going to be pretty, especially early. And we got to get as many wins as we can by the spirit of the team.”
The task just became tougher. Shumpert, the Knicks’ prized rookie guard, is expected to miss two to four weeks after spraining his right knee. Jared Jeffries, the Knicks’ first big man off the bench, will be out for a week or two after injuring his right calf. The Knicks open a three-game trip Wednesday at Golden State.
The losses of Jeffries and Shumpert further degrade the Knicks’ bench, which as D’Antoni acknowledged was “wobbly” to begin with. Mike Bibby, who missed the opener because of a back injury, will take Shumpert’s minutes. Josh Harrellson, a second-round draft pick, and Steve Novak, who was claimed off waivers last week, will fill in for Jeffries.
“That’s what the guys are there for,” D’Antoni said.
The Christmas afternoon ended with a snarl; the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett struck the Knicks’ Bill Walker with an open hand to the throat. Garnett had missed a potential game-tying jumper on the game’s final possession with Walker defending. After the buzzer, Walker started to approach Garnett, who responded with venom. Teammates quickly separated them to prevent a fight.
Walker said he did nothing to provoke Garnett and tried to play down the incident.
“I just know I seen his hands coming in my face — that’s disrespectful,” said Walker, who was once teammates with Garnett in Boston. Walker added: “It’s nothing big. It died at the end of the game. It’s over with. I don’t have any animosity toward Kevin.”
Garnett declined to comment on the incident, which could earn him a suspension.
Walker will get more court time without Shumpert, who was emerging as the Knicks’ best backcourt defender. They can hardly afford the loss after Rajon Rondo (31 points) and Ray Allen (20 points) tore through their defense.
The Knicks trailed early in the fourth quarter but tied the game at 100-100 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Toney Douglas (19 points) and Anthony. The score was tied again at 102-102 and 104-104 before Anthony put the Knicks ahead to stay with two free throws. Boston’s Marquis Daniels missed a 3-pointer, setting up the Celtics’ final inbounds play with 3.9 seconds left.
After a 149-day lockout, a half-dozen roster moves and a rushed two-week training camp, the Knicks were eager, if not altogether polished.
“We do not know who we are yet, or what kind of team we’ll have, or what the areas are that we need to really improve on,” D’Antoni said before tip-off.
It had been eight months and a day since these teams last met, — and an equal number of days since the Garden witnessed an N.B.A. game that counted.
It had been nearly six months since the N.B.A. played a meaningful game anywhere. A full house that included Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Tracy Morgan and John McEnroe roared at the game’s return and the introduction of a remodeled Knicks roster.
The Celtics eased past the Knicks in April, but so much had changed since then. The Knicks became stronger, adding Chandler, Shumpert and Baron Davis (once his back is healthy). The Celtics became only a little older.
“I don’t think we’re a lot better today than the team last year,” D’Antoni said of his new squad. “But in two months or three months, we should be a lot better than we were last year.”
The Celtics were missing Pierce because of a bruised right heel, making it difficult to judge them either. For the first time in years, the Knicks see an opportunity to win the Atlantic Division.
“It’s going to be a rivalry now,” D’Antoni said, “because I think we can get up to the same level they are.”