If only Amar'e Stoudemire had released his final shot about a millisecond sooner, the Knicks and their fans would have celebrated as if it were 1994 all over again.
But the video review proved that the final buzzer sounded just before Stoudemire's three-point shot left his fingers, bringing the nightlong party celebrating the reawakening of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden to a thud of a finish.
The Celtics emerged with a 118-16 victory last night thanks to a last-second shot by Paul Pierce, ending the Knicks' winning streak at eight games.
"We definitely earned their respect," Stoudemire said. "I guarantee you right now Boston respects us. We're no slouches."
Raymond Felton had 26 points and 14 assists for the Knicks. Danilo Gallinari scored 20 and Wilson Chandler had 18 points and 12 rebounds. For Boston, Pierce scored 32, Ray Allen added 26, and Kevin Garnett had 20 points and 13 rebounds.
You'd think that the mere thought of coming so close to beating the Celtics - the defending Eastern Conference champions have won 11 straight games - should qualify as progress for a Knicks team that started 3-8.
But on this night the Knicks came too close to a victory to celebrate progress, not after they took the lead in the opening minute and didn't relinquish it until the final minute. This was a game they thought they deserved to win and didn't, and that didn't feel good.
Stoudemire had another monstrous game, scoring 39 points to mark his ninth consecutive game with more than 30. But he missed the most important shot he took, failing to convert on a contested attempt from the paint on the Knicks' possession before Pierce's winning basket.
"You never enjoy losing, especially game-winners," Stoudemire said. "They tend to linger a little bit longer. But Boston respects us. They know how good we can be and how good we are. We'll see them again."
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said he praised his players in the locker room after the game, saying he told them this game was a "test" and that he was pleased "we matched them point for point."
For a while the Knicks did better than that, taking an 11-point lead in the first quarter thanks to a strong start by Stoudemire, who scored 17 points in the opening 12 minutes. That set the tone for an entertaining night before a sold-out crowd, which serenaded Stoudemire with "MVP" chants.
The crowd also dusted off the "Defense" chants that used to be a staple of the Garden back in the mid-1990s when the Knicks were a perennial contender. But that ultimately didn't help, as the Knicks failed to produce a defensive stop when they needed it most.
After Stoudemire missed a shot in front of the hoop with 13.1 seconds remaining, the Celtics called a timeout to prepare for their final shot. Pierce took the inbound pass and ran a high screen-and-roll, which put Stoudemire on the Celtics' sharpshooter.
Pierce faked a drive to the hoop and took a quick step back, creating just enough room between him and Stoudemire to get off a 14-footer. The ball sank through the net, giving the Celtics the lead with four-tenths of a second remaining.
That left the Knicks enough time for a dream shot, and they thought Stoudemire came through when he sank a wide-open three-pointer from the top of the key directly off an inbounds pass. His teammates rushed the court, celebrating what they thought was a victory, only it wasn't.