Boston (49-19) at New York (35-34)

By NICOLINO DIBENEDETTO, STATS Writer Sunday, Mar 20, 2011 Tipoff: 7:30 pm EDT Mon Mar 21, 2011

The Boston Celtics are returning to the playoffs as Atlantic Division champions for a fourth consecutive season. The New York Knicks are aiming to just end a six-season postseason drought.

Their recent play is delaying that process.

The Knicks attempt to begin pulling out of their funk as they face the Celtics at Madison Square Garden on Monday night in the opener of a difficult three-game homestand.

Boston (49-19) has already clinched its 20th Atlantic title in franchise history, four more than the other four division members combined.

The Celtics are also tied with Chicago atop the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of Southeast-leading Miami heading into the final 14 games of the regular season.

New York (35-34) has 13 games left, and it appears to be on its way to reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The team is seventh in the conference, one-half game behind sixth-place Philadelphia and seven ahead of Milwaukee in ninth.

The Knicks failed to create more separation from the Bucks on Sunday, losing 100-95 at Milwaukee while hitting just 38.6 percent of their shots. They’ve dropped five of seven and are 7-8 since acquiring Carmelo Anthony(notes) from Denver last month.

“They’re frustrated, and that’s good,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We’re trying to get this done. We’ll get it done. It’s just a matter of staying calm and knowing our problems and working through them.”

One of the problems has been poor defensive play, and New York has show some improvement over the last three games. The Knicks have allowed an average of 99.3 points after giving up 117.3 over the previous three.

While the defensive issues appear to be waning, Anthony could provide a spark offensively after scoring 23 points Sunday. He was held to six points while making just 2 of 12 shots in a 99-95 loss at Detroit two nights prior.

The forward had 32 points for the Nuggets in a 113-99 loss at Boston on March 24 of last year.

The Knicks are in for a series of rough tests during this homestand, also hosting Orlando and Milwaukee. They’ve dropped 14 of 16 meetings with the Celtics, and nine of 11 at MSG.

New York’s latest home defeat in the series came in heartbreaking fashion, as Paul Pierce(notes) hit a jumper with 0.4 seconds left while Amar’e Stoudemire’s(notes) 3-pointer came just after the final buzzer as Boston won 118-116 on Dec. 15.

Boston may have dropped four of seven, but the team is allowing an average of just 81.8 points over the past six..

The Celtics are looking for another strong defensive effort in order to build on Saturday’s 89-85 win at New Orleans after opening this three-game road trip with a 93-77 loss to Houston the previous night.

“The energy level changed,” said forward-center Glen Davis(notes), who had 20 points and eight rebounds against the Hornets. “We started doing the things we know how to do best. We changed the tempo of the game and we made them uncomfortable in the things they had been doing.”

Pierce has made just 3 of 19 shots - 1 of 10 from 3-point range - to total 19 points over the last two games. The swingman is averaging 27.0 points over the last five visits to the Garden after getting 32 in December.

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Monday, Mar 21