For starters, the Knicks pulled out a 106-104 victory, the kind that eluded them in Boston early in their playoff series last spring. So began the 66-game grind of a shortened season and what the Knicks hope will be a lengthy playoff run.
Don’t be too hopeful just yet. You can’t imagine how many good late-game decisions by and defensive stops like those the Knicks made down the stretch on Sunday afternoon will be required.
For the opening act of the five-game Christmas re-entry that Commissioner David Stern was going to deliver if he had to personally shinny down every chimney in North America, Knicks-Celtics was a natural. It was fun, and it was the preferred result for a league that lives on big-market rivalries — no matter how much the nearly six-month lockout was supposed to be about overall parity.
For sure: parity in Los Angeles between the Lakers and the Clippers. And between the kinds of franchises — Knicks and Celtics included — that Stern couldn’t wait to schedule on Christmas to dispel the notion that cranky owners like Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert were running the league via mutinous e-mail.
“It’s going to be a rivalry now,” Knicks Coach Mike D’Antoni crowed about Knicks-Celtics soon after Kevin Garnett’s end-game jumper bounced off the rim and the Garden exhaled. “They are not going to back down, and we are not going to back down.”
As if to amplify that point, Garnett and the Knicks’ Bill Walker engaged in a shoving match after the last play that sent a message just before the starved N.B.A. masses — and there were many more than the who-cares news media crowd wanted people to think — switched over to the unofficial continuation of the 2011 league finals, or Miami at Dallas.
Stern would have Bryant Gumbel to his mountain ski home for a holiday retreat before acknowledging he thinks his star-driven league is better off predominantly selling sexy markets. But he knows it never has been and never will be the any-given-Sunday N.F.L.
Certainly there is room for the likes of the rising Oklahoma City Thunder — whose game Sunday night against Orlando seemed like an afterthought compared with the other four on the menu — but along the lines of George Mason making a run to the N.C.A.A. Final Four. If Utah ever played Cleveland in late June, the league would have to promise free big-screen televisions to generate widespread interest.
This admittedly is not the most democratic way to run a sports league. It is, however, a result of relentless promotion of celebrity stars — many of whom gravitate reflexively to attention in the big towns in conjunction with the shoe company agenda.
So here we have come, finally, to the 2011-12 regular season, the first full run for Anthony in New York and the emerging story line of Melo as a new man.
“I really don’t have to show that I can score the basketball,” he said while conceding the incongruity of the statement on a day he had 37 points, including 8 of the Knicks’ last 9 and 17 of their 27 in the fourth quarter. “Everyone knows I can do that. Where we are going to succeed is by me making other guys better.”
Yet in the context of Anthony as the point forward — if only for the lack of a trustworthy point guard — the best decision he made Sunday down the stretch was to not pass the ball against double-team pressure with the score tied, 102-102.
Remember Game 2 last spring, the Knicks behind a point, when Anthony let the double-team come to him and sent the ball to Jared (oh, please, no!) Jeffries down on the block? To continue our Game 5 theme, Anthony this time learned from his mistake, split the defenders and buried a leaner, the moral being: natural point forwards — especially those who are as productive as Anthony — cannot script their decisions as much as they must feel them in the flow of the game.
It remains to be seen if Anthony is the ideal man for the job. Had Amar’e Stoudemire and Landry Fields not made terrific defensive plays on Brandon Bass and Ray Allen with the score tied at 104-104, Knicks fans might have cursed the ball Anthony dribbled off his foot on their team’s previous possession. And lamented the Knicks’ continued inability to halt the penetration of Rajon Rondo, who had 31 points and 13 assists, while wondering how they lost to the aging and Paul Pierce-less Celtics.
But Anthony made two decisive free throws with 16.3 seconds left, New Year’s came early and the Knicks headed home with the understanding that the season is going to be a condensed slog, occasionally ugly and often achy.
On Day 1, they lost the wonderfully athletic rookie Iman Shumpert to a sprained knee ligament, while in the locker room the newcomer Tyson Chandler smiled as he showed off a lip he said was split in four places.
“We kept fighting, grinding,” said Chandler, here to do the unglamorous but necessary interior work the Knicks lacked last season when they were winless against the Celtics in eight tries. He finished with six blocks in his Knicks debut.
There will be no Celtics sweep this season. At the Garden on Sunday, it was Christmas and New Year’s together.