Game of the night: Welcome back to big-time basketball, New York

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Paul Pierce was taking bows after a December regular-season game. Spike Lee was out on the court yelling at the referees and the Celtics. The biggest stars were spectacular on a court lit like a stage. There was an impressive game-winner and almost a stunner that topped it — the best ending to a game this season. There was Madison Square Garden as loud as anyone could remember.

All that is why it is good to have the New York Knicks back. And Wednesday night was their welcome back party. Even though it was a 118-116 loss.

As Pierce said in his postgame television interview, the Knicks have arrived. No, they are not elite, not contenders, but interesting and worth watching. And certainly not an easy out. Which is more than you could say about the Knicks for a very long time.

The NBA is better when its biggest franchises are good. Like Boston. Like the Lakers. And like the Knicks. Like the city where it plays, this Knicks team comes with an aggressive attitude and a little edge. These Knicks have swagger and you could see it in the way Amar’e Stoudemire and the rest of the team went hard to the rim (or drove and kicked out to shooters).

Root for them or against them. Having them back is just better.

And two good teams on a big stage leads to some special endings. The last couple minutes of this one was just basketball at its best — dramatic and filled with big plays.

The Knicks led most of the game, by as much as 12 points, but were up just four with two minutes left, and it was hard not to imagine how many times this Celtics team had been in this very spot over the last three years and found a way to win. Boston got a dunk then a couple of free throws on the next possession from Kevin Garnett and the game was tied. Then, with a minute to go, Ray Allen drained a go-ahead 3-pointer and it felt like a dagger.

But these Knicks have swagger. Danilo Gallinari reminded us all he is not just a spot-up shooter by putting the ball on the floor and driving, drawing the foul and hitting the 5-foot floater for the one-and-one. He hit the free throw and it was tied — and the Garden faithful were fit to be tied.

The Knicks’ second-to-last possession was their real chance. After a couple of pretty ugly high pick-and-rolls the Celtics defended well, Raymond Felton and Stoudemire tried one more time and went with something that had worked earlier in the game — Stoudemire slipped the screen, got open and got the ball back in the paint. Glen Davis had rotated over, but Stoudemire got a clean-look 5-footer that rimmed out. Boston got the rebound and its last chance.

With the game on the line, the Celtics went back to an old tried-and-true play for them — Pierce in isolation on the wing. It has had mixed results over the years, but they went to it again. After a pick that the Knicks switched through, Pierce had Stoudemire on him and he tried to drive right but Stoudemire got his body in there. Pierce used that, drove into his defender then did the quick stepback 14-footer. Nylon.

Pierce did a victory lap. Nate Robinson tried to jump on his back and slid right off — no Shrek and Donkey routine here — and you could tell this was no ordinary game for the Celtics. They celebrated like it was a playoff win.

But it wasn’t a win yet. The Knicks had four-tenths of a second left and no Derek Fisher on their roster. But oh, so close. Heartbreakingly so, like a Broadway tragedy. They ran a half-court inbound play where Gallinari peeled off a couple picks, but the Celtics were focused on him. Stoudemire popped straight out and was wide open and got the ball, then turned his body and shot from 25 feet. Nylon. The Knicks piled on each other and the noise almost knocked down the roof in the Garden (again).

But Stoudemire only had time for a catch-and-shoot. No turning his body, too. The shot clearly did not leave his hands in time. Boston won after a review and the correct call.

You had Pierce taking his bows to the crowd.

But it really should have been Stoudemire — 39 points, the ninth-straight game he has reached 30 or more — and his Knicks. They are his Knicks.

They earned it. They are back and putting on a great show on our nation’s biggest stage. And that is good for every true basketball fan. Because more nights like this are good for all of us.

Thunder pick up Paul George in his return to Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Paul George made a winning return to Indiana, hitting the clinching free throws with 10.7 seconds left in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 100-95 victory over the Pacers on Wednesday night.

Steven Adams had 23 points and 13 rebounds and Russell Westbrook finished with 10 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists in his ninth triple-double this season. The Thunder have won two straight on the road.

Victor Oladipo led the Pacers with 19 points and Bojan Bogdanovic scored 15. Indiana had a chance to tie the score after getting the ball back with 15.2 seconds left, but George got a steal then hit a couple free throws.

The Pacers’ winning streak ended at four.

But the highly anticipated matchup between George and Oladipo, the key components in last summer’s blockbuster trade, didn’t go as expected.

George was booed loudly during introductions and every time he touched the ball. Fans only cheered for George when he was called for a foul or made a mistake and it seemed to take a toll on the four-time All-Star. He finished 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting, had two rebounds and four turnovers.

Oladipo, the reigning Eastern Conference player of the week, didn’t have a typical night either. He was 9 of 26 with five rebounds and six assists.

The result: Both teams struggled.

Indiana led 27-22 after one but gave the lead right back by allowing Oklahoma City to start the second quarter on a 9-0 spurt.

After the Pacers answered with a 9-0 run, the Thunder closed the half on a 9-3 spurt to make it 51-46.

The trend continued in the second half.

Indiana charged back to take a 63-59 lead before the Thunder used an 11-2 run to pull out to a 73-69 lead going into the fourth.

Oklahoma City extended the lead to 92-81 with 5:16 to go but only scored six points the rest of the way. That was just enough to hold on.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Oklahoma City is 4-10 on the road. … Oklahoma City got its first series split with the Pacers since 2012-13. … Oklahoma City had 17 offensive rebounds and was 13 of 29 on 3-pointers.

Pacers: Thaddeus Young had 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals. … Made 11 3s but fell to 14-3 when making 10 or more 3-pointers in a game this season. … Center Myles Turner had three blocks, his 12th game this season with three or more. … Former Colts coach Tony Dungy attended the game. He’s in town for Thursday night’s NFL game between the Colts and Broncos.

ALL-STAR DAY

The Pacers got a win before they even took the floor.

A little less than three hours before tip, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced Indiana would host the 2021 All-Star Game. It will be the first time the Pacers have hosted the marquee event since 1985.

The move comes seven months after Larry Bird hand-delivered the formal proposal at the league’s New York headquarters in an IndyCar.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Faces Philadelphia on Friday, trying to improve to 17-1 in the series since moving to Oklahoma City.

Pacers: Host Detroit on Friday, seeking a seventh straight home win in the series.

 

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: ‘I expect to beat them’

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During the 2014-15 season, Rockets star James Harden said the Warriors “ain’t even that good.”

Golden State went on to reach the last three NBA Finals, twice beating Houston in the playoffs, and win two championships.

The Rockets have since re-tooled around Harden, Chris Paul and several quality role players and are in first place. Houston looks like the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.

Rockets center Clint Capela on the Warriors, via Dave Schilling of Bleacher Report:

“I expect to beat them,” Capela says.

That’s a fine sentiment. Saying it publicly is another matter. Not even Harden did that a couple years ago. He was recorded during a pregame team huddle.

There’s a fine line between self-fulfilling confidence and providing bulletin-board material to the opponent. There’s already some animosity between the teams stemming from the Stephen Curry-Harden MVP race in 2015, and it has bubbled since. No matter how harmless Capela’s remark might have been intended to be, it’ll be met contentiously in the Bay Area.

PBT Extra Player of the Week: Victor Oladipo

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Oklahoma City traded for Victor Oladipo out of Orlando to be their third scorer, behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It didn’t exactly work out that way, Durant bolted town and when Westbrook went off Oladipo was looking for a place to fit in.

That place turned out to be the Pacers.

Oladipo has been playing like an All-Star this season with Indiana, and last week he was key in snapping Cleveland’s 13 game win streak, then turned around and dropped 47 points on Denver. For the week he averaged 35.7 points a game, shot 45.7 percent from three, plus grabbed 7.7 rebounds per game.

That will get you named the PBT Extra Player of the Week.

Watch Pacers fan boo Paul George during introductions (video)

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Paul George – who told the Pacers he’d leave in free agency, prompting them to trade him to the Thunder – expected boos in his return to Indiana.

Pacers fans delivered.

They’ve also booed him every time he has touched the ball, which will certainly persist.