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.

Serge Ibaka, DeMar DeRozan lead Raptors past Mavericks, 94-86

Associated Press
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DALLAS (AP) — DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka scored 18 points apiece, and the Toronto Raptors clinched a playoff berth after their fifth straight victory, 94-86 over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday night.

The Raptors, who came back from 15-point deficits to win each of their last two games, made it a little easier on themselves Saturday. Toronto scored the game’s first seven points and never trailed in dealing the Mavericks’ playoff hopes a damaging blow.

Harrison Barnes scored 23 points for Dallas, which missed 18 of its first 22 3-pointers and finished just 7 of 28 from behind the arc.

Patrick Patterson added 14 points for Toronto, including a perfect 4 for 4 on 3-pointers.

The Mavericks fell four games behind Denver for the final playoff spot in the West.

Toronto led by as many as 16 points in the first half and by 15 early in the fourth quarter before a 10-0 Dallas run made things more interesting.

Dorian Finney-Smith‘s free throws with 7:57 to go brought the Mavs within 79-74, the closest they had been since 7-2 early in the game. But Ibaka made consecutive jumpers to restore a nine-point lead, and Dallas got no closer than six after that.

The Raptors had their biggest lead at 42-26 in the first half. Barnes scored Dallas’ last 11 points of the half to help cut into the lead, but Toronto led 54-44 at the break.

J.J. Barea‘s long 3 at the third-quarter buzzer again brought Dallas within 10 at 74-64.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Coach Dwane Casey said he was hopeful that guard Kyle Lowry would return from wrist surgery before the end of the regular season. “I know he’s doing a lot of conditioning, a lot of work to keep his body in shape,” Casey said. “Just let him rehab, let him do his thing and trust our medical people.” Lowry has missed the last 16 games. . Toronto was also without starting forward DeMarre Carroll due to a sore lower back. P.J. Tucker started in his place.

Mavericks: Seth Curry with 11 points and Yogi Ferrell with 10 were the only other Mavs in double figures. . Nerlens Noel started his second game in a row at center for the Mavericks, who have gone to a big lineup. They’ve moved Dirk Nowitzki to power forward, Barnes to small forward and Curry to point guard.

STREAK IN JEOPARDY

The Mavericks took their 41st loss of the season. Their next loss will end the NBA’s second-longest streak of .500 or better seasons – currently at 16 seasons. Their last sub-.500 season was 1999-00, when they finished 40-42 and Mark Cuban became owner of the team in January 2000.

San Antonio has the longest streak of .500 or better seasons with 20, including this season.

ABOUT THURSDAY NIGHT

Cuban couldn’t resist giving his opinion on Barea’s ejection from the Mavericks’ victory over the Clippers on Thursday night. Barea was called for a flagrant 2 foul for pushing Blake Griffin, a player with a 10-inch height advantage over Barea.

“I just feel bad for Blake,” Cuban said. “It’s hard to come back from a knockout like that. We sent flowers to his family, condolences. I can only guess that he’s going to be drinking through a straw for a long, long time.”

 

John Wall scores 37 as Wizards down LeBron James, Cavs 127-115

Associated Press
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CLEVELAND (AP) John Wall scored 37 points, Bradley Beal added 27 and the Washington Wizards began a challenging road trip by beating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-115 on Saturday night.

Wall scored 18 in the first quarter, when the Wizards shot 82 percent, and Washington held on down the stretch to avenge an overtime loss to the NBA champions last month.

James, who briefly wore goggles to protect an eye injury sustained Friday night, scored 24 and added 11 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving added 23 points and Kevin Love 17 for Cleveland, playing at home for the only time in a seven-game stretch.

Washington’s victory cut Cleveland’s lead in the Eastern Conference to a half-game over idle Boston.

Rudy Gobert calls out Jazz teammates after loss: “We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice.”

Associated Press
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Utah and the L.A. Clippers are almost locked into a first round, four vs. five battle in the Western Conference. The only question is which team will have home court, and the Clippers took a big step towards that beating the Jazz at home Saturday. While the Jazz still has a half-game lead, the Clippers have a much softer schedule the rest of the way.

After that loss, Jazz center Rudy Gobert was ticked off and called out his teammates. Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

“We’ve got guys that compete, but some of us don’t compete. Some of us just think about scoring. That’s what it is. … Coach keeps repeating it: We’ve just got to compete. We’re too nice. Those guys, we know they’re going to get calls. We’ve just got to come out aggressive and ready to fight.”

Interesting comments for a team that is third in the NBA in defensive rating and 13th in offense.

Gobert is frustrated as Utah has dropped four of its last five, and the slump has been on both ends of the court. The defense has struggled, but if guys are looking to score too much they aren’t doing it efficiently because the offense has been worse.

This slide likely costs Utah home court in the first round, which could matter in what will be a tight matchup with Los Angeles. Utah needs to find its grinding rhythm again heading into the playoffs, at their best they can knock off the Clippers in the first round. Just not like they are playing now.

One thing to watch, Utah’s Gordon Hayward asked out of the game in the fourth quarter due to what is being called a bruised muscle in his leg. If he misses any time or if this lingers, it could be trouble for the Jazz in the postseason.

 

LeBron James starts game with protective goggles. That lasts about a minute.

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LeBron James suffered a scratched cornea Friday night when he went up for a layup late in the third quarter and Jeremy Lamb tried to contest and caught him clean across the face. LeBron got the and-1, but had trouble keeping his eye open in postgame interviews Friday.

Saturday he did play — wearing protective goggles. As you can see above.

That lasted about a minute.

LeBron was likely frustrated as the Cavaliers defensive woes had the Wizards up double digits much of the first half.