Paul Pierce nailed two game-winning shots this season at Madison Square Garden, once in the preseason and once in the regular season, and both times celebrated with a home-run trot around the court. The brash Celtics forward, one of the NBA's notorious trash-talkers, referred to each as "walk-off'' shots, a nod to the sport at the epicenter of the rivalry that exists between the cities of New York and Boston.
It was Pierce who, in December, dismissed that notion as it applies to the Knicks and Celtics, saying of the two original NBA franchises: "It's a rivalry? I didn't know we had a rivalry going.''
One could say the rivalry has been dormant because it's been seven years since the Knicks last made the playoffs and 21 years since the two teams last met in the postseason. That was in the first round in 1990, and Patrick Ewing and the Knicks stunned Boston as the Larry Bird Era was drawing to a close.
This year, there's a marked contrast between the teams. The Celtics are aging; they are led by their Big Three of Ray Allen (35), Kevin Garnett (34) and Pierce (33). The Knicks have only one starter, Chauncey Billups, 34, over the age of 30. All-Stars Amar'e Stoudemire (28) and Carmelo Anthony (26) are in their prime years. And as the Celtics finished the regular season with a 10-11 mark, some observers wondered if they still are a championship-caliber team.
But not Stoudemire. "They're still the same Celtics,'' he said.
The goal is to prove these aren't the same old Knicks.
The first order of business would be to win a game at TD Garden. Aside from the critical significance of a road playoff win -- especially in Games 1 or 2 -- it would be the first time the Knicks have won a game in Boston since the Big Three era began in 2007-08. The losing streak is nine, dating to Nov. 26, 2006.
Returning to the 1990 playoffs, it took a Game 5 win on the fabled parquet floor of the old Boston Garden for the Knicks to clinch that series. Up until that point, the Knicks had lost 26 straight in Beantown.
And despite their collective age, the Celtics were 33-8 at the new Gah-den this season.
"We're going to fight, especially here,'' Celtics forward Glen "Big Baby'' Davis said. "Knicks-Boston rivalry is crazy. This is the series to watch. People are going to be watching our series.''
In Boston, against an experienced team, the Knicks have to show a collective toughness that has not always been evident. They lost all four regular- season games to the Celtics.
"Toughness is very, very important, I think,'' said center Ronny Turiaf, who, along with Shelden Williams, will be asked to provide it in a platoon system at center. "But the most important thing is poise. It's understanding what you're trying to accomplish, understanding the defensive concept, the offensive concept, it is the full understanding of what you're trying to accomplish to allow you to be able to apply toughness. Because toughness by itself, or without a conscious effort or any intelligence or smartness, usually works against you.''
Perhaps that's why, aside from Billups' proclamation that his team will be "a tough out'' and is "the most dangerous team in the playoffs,'' the Knicks have been careful not to start a war of words. Why try to wake the sleeping giant?
"Those guys are champions. They know how to play in the playoffs,'' Stoudemire said. "It's going to be a great experience for us. I think we've got the right mindset to give it back. It's going to be a tough series, but we're ready to go.''
This may be the first playoff series for the Knicks in seven years, but for many on the roster, this isn't new territory. This will be Billups' 11th straight playoff season. Anthony has not missed the postseason in his eight years in the NBA. And in five previous postseason appearances, Stoudemire has played beyond the first round three times, twice reaching the conference finals.
Off the bench, Turiaf, Williams and Anthony Carter are playoff veterans. They'll balance the newness of rookie Landry Fields, second-year guard Toney Douglas and Shawne Williams. "Everybody talks about the intensity of the playoffs,'' said Fields, who perhaps has the most difficult matchup going against the veteran Allen. "I'm looking forward to having my first experience of it.''