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Celtics youngsters fall in final game of regular season, lose to Knicks 96-92

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The Celtics dropped the second of a back-to-back in New York with their starters out.

NBA: Boston Celtics at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Boston’s reserves played well with seven players out. The extremely shorthanded Celtics almost made a 15-point comeback, but lost to the Knicks in a surprising nail-biter, 96-92.

The two-headed beast of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett led New York over Boston’s bench unit. Randle scored 19 points and Barrett scored a game-high 22.

The Celtics took to the road for the last time in the 2020-2021 regular season, facing the New York Knicks in their 72nd and final game in the shortened season.

The Knicks came into the Sunday tip needing a win for their playoff positioning. They sat tied with Atlanta at 40-31, fighting for the four seed and home court advantage in the first round. With a win, New York could clinch the four seed.

Boston had most of their core sitting out for the Madison Square Garden matinee with the seventh seed locked up. According to Keith Smith, the team expects just Jaylen Brown’s season-ending injury to be a long-term issue.

Brown, Evan Fournier, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Tristan Thompson, Kemba Walker and Robert Williams account for 112.1 points per game combined. Filling in the starter shoes for Boston were Payton Pritchard, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Grant Williams and Luke Kornet.

The Knicks came out firing. Julius Randle hit two threes on the right wing and Reggie Bullock hit one from the same spot. It was a three-point parade in the first few minutes, with Pritchard and Grant Williams letting it fly for Boston.

Randle was the difference-maker early on, scoring eight points in the first four minutes on perfect shooting. Randle, who made the All-Star team for the first time this season, is playing incredible under head coach Tom Thibodeau.

After improving his points per game from 19.5 to 24.2 and shooting the three ball at an elite rate, Randle is seemingly a lock for most improved player. He went from a 27% 3-point shooter to a 41% 3-point shooter on almost two more 3-point attempts per game than in 2019-2020.

Kornet was making standout plays on defense in the first quarter. The 7’2” former Knick blocked RJ Barrett and Elfrid Payton on layups early in his second straight start. Against Minnesota the day before, Kornet had 12 points and four blocks.

After one quarter, the Celtics had a one-point lead. It was a balanced approach offensively, with Payton Pritchard (six) leading the team in points. Outside of Randle’s 11, the Knicks were sluggish to begin.

Pritchard, with two threes in the first, passed J.R. Bremer for second on the Celtics all-time rookie 3-point list with 102. He finished with just those two, going 2-8 from beyond the arc. Jayson Tatum (105) maintains his Celtics rookie record.

Romeo Langford was finding his rhythm in the other Garden. Langford was actively cutting to the basket and moving in transition. He was playing to his strengths: his athleticism, defense and slashing ability. In 16 first-half minutes, Langford had a team-high nine points.

In the second quarter, the Knicks were playing better than they had in the first 12 minutes. Alec Burks provided a scoring boost from the bench, scoring 11 points and hitting 3-3 threes. Burks was exploiting Boston’s screen defense, which was giving him space on deep pull-ups.

With Burks providing a boost, the Knicks began to play much better as a unit. New York went on a big run to close out the half. After two Langford free throws made it 39-37 New York, the Knicks went on a massive 15-2 run, anchored by their elite defense.

Boston’s youth headed into the locker room at halftime down 54-39 after a second quarter in which they were outscored 31-15.

After a hot start, the Celtics cooled off considerably. Both teams started off shooting poorly, but the Celtics were not able to recover as New York had. Nerlens Noel was playing stellar defense, which contributed to a lot of missed shots and turnovers by Boston.

Noel finished with three steals and four blocks, playing his defensive anchor role well, as he’s done all season.

Jabari Parker was efficient and energized in the third quarter. He scored nine points in the third quarter, hitting a three and going 4-4 from the field. Parker stuffed the stat sheet in his limited minutes, finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds and two assists.

The difference in 3-point shooting was prominent. New York was shooting extremely well from beyond the arc, it was the cornerstone of their comeback. Boston, however was shooting from deep often, but couldn’t connect with the same efficiency.

After three quarters, the 3-point scoring was the main discrepancy in scoring. New York shot 11-21 from three (52%), compared to Boston’s 8-30 (27%).

The fourth quarter opened with New York up 12, 77-65. Tremont Waters was splashing in the fourth, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 11 points. Waters was instrumental to a mid-fourth quarter run from Boston.

Waters finished with 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals in a standout performance.

After clawing back into the game, Boston trailed 91-85, forcing Thibodeau to call a timeout with just over five minutes remaining. Boston went on an 11-0 run in a 3:02 span, quickly erasing a consistent double-digit lead.

Boston kept fighting, but New York kept distance still. In the final two minutes, the Celtics had multiple chances to tie, but in the end the full-strength Knicks were able to kill clock and hold on for a narrow victory.

The Celtics await the results of today’s NBA action to see who they will face in the first round of the play-in tournament. They finish this season with a 36-36 record