The Knicks exorcised one demon this season, dethroning Boston to win their first Atlantic Division title in 19 years. As much as they relished that, knocking the Celtics out of the playoffs would be even sweeter for the Knicks.
It's fitting that the Knicks open the postseason against their biggest rival in recent years. The teams have battled each other on the court, and in the cases of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett, it's spilled over to the Garden hallways and outside the team bus.
"It's two teams that don't like each other," Tyson Chandler said Thursday. "That's better. That's what you live for."
This first-round series, which begins Saturday afternoon at the Garden, should have no shortage of trash-talking, physical plays and technical fouls. The referees will try to control the action so it doesn't escalate the way it did at the Garden in January, when Anthony and Garnett had to be restrained a few times.
But the second-seeded Knicks have to maintain their focus and can't let themselves get rattled when the temperature on the court rises.
The Knicks, winners of 16 of their last 18 games, believe they're legitimate championship contenders. If they are, they will oust the seventh-seeded Celtics and exorcise two more demons by eliminating the team that bounced the Knicks in 2011 and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2000.
"I'm excited for this long run we're about to endure," Chandler said.
"We have the opportunity to do something special," Anthony said.
The fact that Chandler stood up in front of the Knicks' banner after participating in practice Thursday was a good sign. He missed 16 of the final 20 games, 15 of them because of a bulging disc in his neck.
Chandler said he felt good, but his body and neck will be tested by Celtics big men Garnett and Brandon Bass. Nevertheless, Chandler and the Knicks are confident that they have enough to beat Boston.
Kenyon Martin returned to practice after missing the last five games, giving the Knicks another big man and a physical presence they're going to need. But they probably won't have Pablo Prigioni for at least Game 1 after he sprained his right ankle in Wednesday night's regular-season finale against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks have been able to overcome injuries all season, though. They acquired Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd to handle most of the point guard duties and assembled a veteran roster to complement Anthony and improve their chances of not just winning but going deep in the postseason.
Anthony, who is making his ninth straight playoff appearance, has reached the second round only once. But he said this is the best team he's played on and has the best chance of playing into June.
"As of right now it is," Anthony said. "I really don't know what's going to happen the next eight to 10 years or something. As of right now, I feel like . . . we have a shot to do something special."
Both teams feel that way. Garnett, Paul Pierce and the Celtics want to prove they still have one more playoff run left in them. They won't have All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, who tore his ACL in January, but they still have a lot of pride, experience and players who know how to take care of their bodies in the regular season so they're strong in the playoffs.
"They've been around, they've won," Anthony said. "They have a lot of experience. I think that was one of the reasons we put together this team we have. For the most part, we've been playing good basketball. We want to keep that going."