In the days before Game 1 of his team’s first-round series against the Knicks, Celtics  president Danny Ainge said, “The biggest fear I have is the respect I have for Chauncey Billups , Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire finishing games.” And prior to the game, Celtics  coach Doc Rivers  echoed that sentiment.
But after the Knicks blew a 12-point halftime lead and after the Celtics finished an 87-85 comeback victory, both teams sang a different tune. The experienced Celtics executed. And the unfamiliar Knicks didn’t.
“We had a 13-point third quarter,” said Knicks sixth man Bill Walker , who was traded from the Celtics in the Nate Robinson  deal last season. “We didn’t move the ball. They loaded up their defense, and once they load up their defense, they’re pretty good. They’ve got a former Defensive Player of the Year [Kevin Garnett ], Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen] are great defenders themselves and [Rajon] Rondo‘s a ball hawk. So, once they get set and know what you’re doing, it’s pretty hard to score. We’ve just got to keep them in transition and run them.”
Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups did their part in the first half, combining for 31 of New York’s 51 first-half points on 11-of-19 shooting. But it all fell apart in the second half.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a blowout in this series,” said Rondo, “so the team that executes down the stretch usually finds a way to win.”
In Game 1, that team was the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics.
“I’ve seen it plenty of times,” added Walker, a member of the 2008-09 C’s that took the Magic to seven games in the conference semifinals. “I was telling those guys when we had that lead at halftime, ‘It’s not enough. It’s never enough.’ You’ve got those guys over there. You knew they were going to bring it. Like I said, it’s a war. They won today. We’ll come back, try to tip this thing up again and try to get a win.”
In the second half, Anthony made just 1-of-11 field goals and committed a costly (albeit questionable) offensive foul with 21 seconds left, thanks to some effective defense from Pierce and Jeff Green .
“As far as that offensive foul goes, what I thought and what they called were two different things,” said Anthony, whose three points in the second half gave him 15 for the night. “So, it is what it is. He called it, and it’s over with.
“As far as Paul Pierce , the matchup, I don’t think he did anything out of the ordinary or special tonight defending me. I think the Celtics were themselves. They load the paint up. Every time I caught it, they loaded the side up and they shifted court. I missed some shots I normally make. I’m not too concerned about my individual performance.”
Meanwhile, Rondo held Billups to 1-of-7 shooting after the break before the Knicks point guard strained his left knee  in the final minute.
“They tightened up the defensive pressure,” said Billups, who “doesn’t have a clue” if he’ll play in Game 2 on Tuesday. “They got in passing lanes and they caused turnovers a couple times on missed reads. But that’s what they do. We were prepared for that. I still feel we should have come out with the win. This is one that kind of got away.”
Only Stoudemire — who scored a game-high 28 points and even made Garnett’s defense seem porous at times — performed well during a second half in which New York totaled just 34 points on 14-of-43 shooting (32.6 percent). And despite the fact Stoudemire had 12 points on seven fourth-quarter shots, including a pair of ridiculous makes at the rim that put his team up 82-78, the Knicks failed to get him a shot in the final two minutes.
“I told you guys from the beginning, I knew Stoudemire was going to be a tough matchup,” said Garnett. “That was almost a given, but I’m a player who’s going to play. I thought some of the sets they were running we already knew. I thought the defense was there. Better offense sometimes. They hit shots when they had to. Second half I thought we got into that defensive rhythm we know we can get into.
“I’m trying to make it difficult for him but Amar’e can score in different ways. We all know that.”
Stoudemire played well, and the Celtics didn’t, except when it mattered most. As much as Rivers feared what Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups were capable of in the final minutes of a close game, it was the Celtics coach that drew up the better plays and his players that executed them. Rivers called the alley-oop for Garnett that closed gap to 85-84 with 37 seconds left, and Rivers called for Allen’s game-winner.
“It was perfect execution, a perfect play draw-up,” Rondo said of his alley-oop to Garnett. “Obviously, we’ve done it before, but we’ve been practicing those types of situations for a long time, and tonight it paid off.” As for Allen’s 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining, the Celtics point guard added, “Doc drew up a great play, and KG set a great pick.”
Now, especially with the uncertainty surrounding Billups, it’s the Knicks who have to worry about whether or not they can finish games.
“I’ve got to give them credit,” said Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni. “They made big shots at the end. That’s why they are who they are.”