Carmelo Anthony battles for the ball against Ray Allen and...

Carmelo Anthony battles for the ball against Ray Allen and Paul Pierce during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. (April 24, 2011) Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Knicks' renaissance didn't end with Sunday's 101-89 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden. This season, in which the team climbed back into the ranks of respectability with its first winning record in a decade and its first playoff appearance in seven years, is supposed to be the beginning.

But the first-round series did close with a frustrating sweep by the defending Eastern Conference champions, with two buzz-killing blowout losses at home that yanked the cord out of the wall for a team that, even at full strength, was going to need energy to win.

But they weren't at full strength, not even with Amar'e Stoudemire in the lineup Sunday. And the energy they needed took way too long to arrive.

"I think we would have made a better run if we all were 100 percent," said Stoudemire, who again played through a strained muscle in his lower back. "If we were 100 percent, there's no telling . . . It might have been a longer series. I guess we'll never know."

Stoudemire had 19 points and 12 rebounds in 44:24 but shot 5-for-20 from the field. Carmelo Anthony had 32 points and nine rebounds. The problem was, with Chauncey Billups knocked out of the series in Game 1 (strained tendon in left knee), no other Knick -- in particular, second-year guard Toney Douglas and rookie Landry Fields -- picked up the slack.

"We just have to grow from experience," Stoudemire said.

The Knicks may have ended a seven-year drought with this appearance, but they remain without a playoff win in a decade. Their playoff losing streak is now 10 straight games, which includes a sweep by the Nets in 2004. But they go into the offseason having caught the attention of the East's most dominant team.

"They're not that far away," Paul Pierce said. "They're going to be a team to be reckoned with next year."

Kevin Garnett led the Celtics with 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Rajon Rondo had 21 points and 12 assists. It was the first time the Celtics have swept a team in the playoffs since the Big Three era began in 2007-08.

"Boston today is a better team than we are, in every sense of the word," Mike D'Antoni said. "They're a better team. We have to get up to that level."

The Celtics went ahead by 23 points early in the third quarter, and it wasn't until Boston went into cruise control -- up 20 late in the quarter -- that the Knicks truly threatened to avoid a sweep. Sparked by a pair of fast-break dunks by Anthony, the Knicks went on a 26-10 run that bridged the third and fourth quarters and brought them within 84-80 with 7:35 left in the game.

When the Knicks cut the deficit to 14 late in the third, Doc Rivers called a timeout, then stayed away from the bench. He paced on the court, disgusted with his team for allowing the reawakening of the Knicks and a Garden crowd that already was contemplating next season.

"I thought we dropped our guard a little bit," Rivers said. "They played desperate . . . We lost our edge and they had an edge."

Ten points off the lead later, Rivers again called a timeout and sent starters Pierce and Jermaine O'Neal back into the game. The Celtics went right to work, finally putting away the Knicks by outscoring them 11-5 in the next 3:26.

"Everything had to go right," D'Antoni said. "They're good. They executed well."

But if anything, the late burst by the Knicks gave the crowd one last chance to roar before the lights were shut off at the Garden -- and this version of it, as a major transformation of the lower bowl will begin this offseason -- for the season. And as the final seconds ticked off, the sellout crowd stood and applauded.

"We've got a long way to go," Anthony said. "There are happy times ahead."