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Even in losing, Amar'e validates Knicks

NEW YORK – Paul Pierce(notes) bowed to the boos tumbling down from beyond the dusty, old Knicks banners, smirked on his way to the locker room and blurted loudly to the brokenhearted building.

“They wanted it,” Pierce bellowed.

Here in New York, what they wanted was a rivalry again. Pierce smiled that cocksure Boston Celtics smile and yelled again on his way past the scorer’s table, past the fans starting to bundle to descend into a cold, New York night.

“THEY WANTED IT!”

They did want it here. The Knicks had gone and got good and muscled-up with free-agent talent. They’d gone on an eight-game winning streak, and they wanted the Celtics to see that an old rivalry could breathe again. In the end, Pierce had the final word on Wednesday night, a signature, step-back jump shot over Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) with .4 seconds left. This had been Stoudemire’s night, his season, and ultimately it was his 3-pointer a millisecond past the buzzer that spared the Celtics a March Madness moment at Madison Square Garden.

Stoudemire had destroyed the Celtics, gone for 39 points and 10 rebounds, only to be foiled when Pierce played that old Larry Bird game of leaving too little on the clock for a retaliatory dagger. This had been the most compelling night at the Garden in a long, long time, a 118-116 loss to the Celtics that left the Knicks as invigorated as it did devastated. For all of the Knicks’ impressive victories this season – 13 out of the past 14 on the way into Wednesday – they might have proven more in this loss to Boston.

Pierce had taken a lap to gloat, and now he was screaming to the people that these Knicks ought to be careful about wishing to renew a rivalry with the defending Eastern Conference champions. Pierce pretended like these Knicks were a fly flicked from his forearm, but that was something of a mocking act. The Knicks these Celtics once treated so shabbily – who had long stopped offering resistance – are gone now. Stoudemire changes everything for New York, and the specter of Carmelo Anthony(notes) – perhaps even the inevitability of the Denver Nuggets star – makes the Knicks a gathering storm in the Eastern Conference.

“I guarantee you that Boston respects us,” Stoudemire said.

For now, Stoudemire ought to understand this: The Celtics respect him. They know he’s responsible for grabbing this forlorn franchise and willing it out of rubble and into relevance. For it was nine months ago, some Celtics officials will tell you, that fates could’ve dramatically changed had the Cleveland Cavaliers made a deal for Stoudemire instead of Antawn Jamison(notes) at the trading deadline.

Would the Celtics have still won that series against the Cavaliers? When LeBron James(notes) bailed in Game 5, Cleveland would’ve had a power forward who’s been one of the NBA’s two or three most dominant players since the February trading deadline. The Celtics never had to defend Jamison, but this run of nine straight 30-point performances, the way that Stoudemire is scoring everywhere on the floor – no matter who is guarding him – has been remarkable.

Beyond the evolution of his singular talent, Stoudemire has engaged New York in a way that has been startling. He wasn’t dying to play for Mike D’Antoni again, nor was D’Antoni dying to coach him. Yet coach and player needed each other again. Only the Knicks would guarantee Stoudemire a $100 million contract with those knees. Only Stoudemire would take the burden of resurrecting a forlorn Knicks franchise.

When New York teetered on implosion in the first weeks of the season, it was Stoudemire raging in that locker room against the Knicks giving into futility the way they had for so long. For all the belief that Steve Nash(notes) elevated Stoudemire’s game, Stoudemire’s showing now how much he meant to Nash.

“I’m proud of the way that I’ve developed,” Stoudemire would say in a private moment outside the Knicks’ locker room on Wednesday night. “I played with some great leaders in Phoenix, and maybe sometimes you get overlooked in that way. But to prove that I’m a franchise player now? No, I don’t have to prove anything. … I don’t have to prove that.”

Perhaps, but he’s done it, and the Celtics know that, too. They’re still grateful they didn’t have to see him in the Eastern Conference playoffs a year ago, but perhaps they won’t be so fortunate this time. Stoudemire had Miami and Chicago higher on his list of choices, because privately he felt about New York like a lot of players in free agency: Do I want to be the guy getting torn apart when they don’t get LeBron?

And yet, what became a union of convenience – perhaps even necessity – has blossomed into something that neither the Knicks, nor Stoudemire, believed could be such a perfect fit. Stoudemire has restored credibility to the franchise and gone a long way toward making it easier for the next star player to commit to New York. No one wanted to go it alone here, but Stoudemire made the leap of faith on the Knicks, the way that they made a leap with his knees.

The Celtics couldn’t help themselves, and taunted these Knicks, these fans, all the way out of the Garden on Wednesday night. They’ve won 11 straight games now, and they know the Knicks still need more than the greatness of Stoudemire to make a true run at them in the East.

“They test our defense,” Pierce said. “There are a couple of teams that test our defense and they’re one of them. … They’re playing great basketball.”

Mostly, Stoudemire tests them. No one on the Celtics could stop him, and they were fortunate to keep him under 40 points, to get out of New York with a victory. Stoudemire is a monster, and, yes, there’s a gathering storm in the distance that could change everything here. Near the freight elevator late Wednesday, one of the Celtics coaches turned and asked a final question before the doors shut and the staff slipped into the cold, New York night with a steal of a victory.

“Hey,” he said. “Do you think they’ll get Carmelo?”