Knicks Make Final Preparations for N.B.A.’s Opening Game

“It should be an exciting year,” Coach said. “We’re looking forward to it. I know the players are looking forward to playing. It should be great.”

D’Antoni said the Knicks would probably use the same starting lineup they did in the two-game preseason on Sunday when they face the , who swept the Knicks out of the opening round of the playoffs last season in four games. They may, however, be without the backup point guard Mike Bibby.

Bibby, a 13-year veteran who signed with the Knicks on Dec. 11, injured his back when he collided with the Nets’ Stephen Graham in the teams’ preseason game Wednesday. Bibby sat out practice Friday, but he participated on a limited basis Saturday. He will probably be a game-time decision.

Either way, the Knicks will probably maintain the starting lineup that features Tyson Chandler at center, Amar’e Stoudemire at power forward, Carmelo Anthony at small forward, Landry Fields at shooting guard and Toney Douglas at point guard.

The lockout-abbreviated training camp has added to the difficulty in preparing for the season. D’Antoni has simplified the offense and says he plans to add layers of complexity as the season progresses. On Saturday, he put the Knicks through what appeared to be a fairly thorough practice, not sparing a moment even though it was Christmas Eve.

“Everybody’s antsy,” D’Antoni said. “I think every team is the same way. You hope they respond the right way; you worry about them physically and mentally, the way a team’s put together. A little more angst on our part, but we’re confident we can play well.”

After Sunday’s opener against the Celtics, the Knicks will , returning to the Garden to host the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 2.

The Knicks have seemed to try to temper the early expectations by reiterating that a season is a marathon, not a sprint. But coaches and players acknowledge that they will have an opportunity to make an opening statement with a strong performance.

“The atmosphere is going to be just like, if not better than, a playoff game tomorrow,” Stoudemire said. “It’s Christmas Day. It’s the first game. Prime-time game. It’s going to be incredible.”

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First Order for Knicks Is a Healthy Lineup

Amar’e Stoudemire is probable, Chauncey Billups is doubtful and will try to compensate if one or both are absent from the third game of the team’s first-round series against the .

Coach said he was optimistic that Stoudemire would play. Stoudemire did not attend Thursday’s practice because he was receiving treatment at home in Manhattan for the back spasms that sidelined him for the second half of the 96-93 loss that created the 2-0 crater the Knicks hope to escape. “It just depends on how he moves and how he feels, and when you have a bad back we can’t have him out there at half-speed,” D’Antoni said.

The Knicks will conduct a shootaround Friday morning and again gauge whether Stoudemire and Billups have made progress.

“We’ll see how he feels,” Happy Walters, Stoudemire’s agent, said. “He’s definitely trying. He’s getting treatment around the clock.”

D’Antoni said he was less hopeful about Billups’s availability. Billups attended practice and received treatment, but cast more doubt about his being able to return after straining a tendon in his left knee in the final minute of Game 1. Billups sat out Game 2 and on Wednesday he received a cortisone shot and had blood drained from the knee. On Thursday, he said he was still in pain and limited in movement.

“I gave myself my best chance, so I’m just hoping at this point,” said Billups, who spoke to reporters with the hood on his gray sweatshirt pulled up over his head. “I just want to be able to run around out there a little bit.”

Toney Douglas would start again in Billups’s absence and try to slow Rajon Rondo. If Stoudemire is unable to play, Shawne Williams will replace him in the starting lineup.

Boston holds a two-game series edge with only a 5-point differential. The Knicks can take both comfort and concern from Games 1 and 2. They proved that they could stay close to the Celtics, but have yet to show that they can close out a victory.

Anthony, coming off a masterful 42-point performance in a losing effort in Game 2, described Friday’s game as “a must win for us.” He is probably correct. No team has rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. On Friday, the crowd at Madison Square Garden will hope to see the Knicks’ first playoff win in a decade.

“I’m pretty sure it’ll be crazy,” Anthony said. “I think crazy is an understatement, but that’s the word I’m going to use right now.”

D’Antoni also disclosed that Ronny Turiaf experienced knee pain in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s loss.

“In my mind at that point, he was done for the day,” D’Antoni said. “So it was really never a question at the end of who would play.”

Jared Jeffries played the pivotal moments in Turiaf’s place. He momentarily put the Knicks ahead with a layup before allowing to hit the game-sealing basket and then losing the ball to Garnett while on offense.

Turiaf is expected to play Friday. The best the Knicks can hope for in Game 3 is having three starters — Stoudemire, Billups and Turiaf — able to play effectively despite their pain. Another starter, Landry Fields, has played poorly in the series.

That leaves Anthony, who will take the bulk of shots and shoulder most of the responsibility no matter who is on the court. Anthony said he would be willing to play the entire game and joked that he would go to bed early on Thursday for the extra rest.

“Without them two guys, I think me personally, I have to step up and try to do it all to try and win,” Anthony said. “But at the same time, we’ve got guys who have to step up on the team. Like I told you before, there’s no way I can do it by myself.”

He tried Tuesday and performed spectacularly, though he once again opened himself up to be second-guessed for a decision in the waning moments. With the Knicks down to one possession, he elected to pass to Jeffries, who had the ball stolen by Garnett.

“I wanted it,” Anthony said. “I wanted to take that shot. But the right thing to do is when somebody’s open, you’ve got to get it to them.”

In Game 1, he was criticized for attempting a game-winning 3-pointer over a double team in the final seconds.

“I didn’t take the shot,” Anthony said. “You guys criticized me for that. I took the shot the other day, you criticized me for that. But it’s all good to me. If I was in the same situation, I would definitely pass it to Jared again.”

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Knicks Leave Opening, and Celtics Slip Past

They played with a steady precision, as if they had been together years instead of weeks. One of their youngest players hit the biggest shot. They defended with surprising passion.

They played the , the defending Eastern Conference champions, down to the final seconds, losing only when Ray Allen — the author of countless memorable playoff moments — got the ball and a little open space at the arc.

Allen, the ’s career 3-point leader, took a pass from Paul Pierce and sent the ball through the net with 11.6 seconds left, sending TD Garden into a happy frenzy. missed a deep 3-pointer over Pierce seconds later, and the Celtics danced away with an 87-85 victory to open this first-round series.

As the buzzer sounded, Allen spiked the ball and was mobbed by teammates.

The Knicks were left to ponder a grand missed opportunity after leading for most of the second half and blowing a 3-point lead in the final minute. They might have also lost their point guard, as Chauncey Billups limped away with a strained left knee and is questionable for Game 2.

“Anytime you lose with a few seconds left, it’s never a good feeling,” said Amar’e Stoudemire, who celebrated the Knicks’ first playoff game in seven years with 28 points and 11 rebounds. “But we did play extremely hard. We did a great job defensively for most of the game. We just didn’t get the win.”

They came close. Toney Douglas, in the first playoff game of his career, made a 3-pointer that gave the Knicks an 85-82 lead with 37.8 seconds left. A celebration broke out on the Knicks’ bench.

Seconds later, it was the Celtics bouncing around the court after threw down an alley-oop dunk on a soaring inbounds pass from Rajon Rondo, cutting the lead to 85-84.

Then the Knicks fell apart. Anthony was called for an offensive foul for elbowing Pierce while battling for position. The ball went back to the Celtics with 21 seconds left. Moments later, Allen fired his 3-point shot.

The Knicks had spent all of their timeouts, leaving Anthony to improvise in transition after Allen scored. He took a shot from about 26 feet, but it was well contested and hit the front of the rim.

Anthony was acquired to be the Knicks’ offensive backbone and closer. But he was erratic in his first playoff game as a Knick, going 5 for 18 from the field, 1 for 11 after halftime. He finished with 15 points, 5 fouls, 5 turnovers and an aggravated expression.

Billups (10 points) was the only other Knick in double figures. He said his knee “buckled” on a late drive to the basket, and he sat out the final 1:12. Asked if he would play Tuesday night, Billups said: “I really don’t have a clue. I’m in a lot of pain right now.”

It was of little comfort to know that the Celtics of Allen, Pierce and Garnett have done this many times before. But the Knicks left with the confidence that they can play at the Celtics’ level, in their style, in a low-scoring, defensive-oriented game, and have the chance to win.

“I thought we should have won tonight,” Coach said, “so yes we can. But it puts more pressure on things that aren’t our strong suit.”

Allen had 24 points for the Celtics, who had all of their starters in double figures. Pierce finished with 18 points, and Garnett with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

The Knicks stunned the Celtics by taking a 12-point lead early in the third, then quickly gave it back. Boston opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 burst, and Jeff Green’s 16-footer gave the Celtics their first lead of the second half, 66-64. Stoudemire responded with 8 straight points for the Knicks, giving them a 72-70 lead with 5:55 to play.

Stoudemire flexed every muscle and showed off every move down the stretch. He sliced between O’Neal and Garnett for a tough reverse layup, then powered past Garnett and dunked over O’Neal for an 82-78 lead. He never got another chance to score.

The Celtics’ size advantage proved to be just as great a problem as the Knicks feared, with Boston grabbing 15 offensive rebounds (for 19 second-chance points) and winning the overall rebounding margin, 44-34.

Boston opened the series without its preferred O’Neal (Shaquille), but got some great work from its spare O’Neal (Jermaine), who had 12 points, 4 rebounds and 4 blocks.

O’Neal did his best work during the Celtics’ third-quarter surge, as they worked their way back from a 12-point deficit. He scored 6 points, blocked Anthony twice and kept alive numerous possessions.

“We won the game because of ,” Coach said. “That’s it. Forget his offense. His defense, his presence, his shot-blocking, his rebounding, his toughness.”

As the game got tighter, the Knicks’ shot selection became poorer, with Anthony and Billups attempting a series of tightly guarded, rushed shots in the second half.

Somewhere in the three-day gap between the regular season and Game 1, the Knicks found a defensive conscience. They thoroughly frustrated the Celtics in the first half, forcing two shot-clock violations and 10 turnovers while taking a 51-39 lead.

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