NEW YORK -- As measuring-stick games go, the New York Knicks were a couple inches short and a click of the clock too late.
This game in a nutshell? That's it right there. If Amare Stoudemire had gotten a couple of inches closer to Paul Pierce on the step-back jumper that everyone from here to Boston knew he was going to take, perhaps Stoudemire gets a finger on it and it doesn't drop through.
And if Stoudemire had shown just a tad more hand speed on the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer he hit after the final buzzer had already sounded the jubilation that the Madison Square Garden crowd displayed would have actually been meaningful.
As it was, Pierce's dagger with four-tenths of a second left made for a crushing ending to the Knicks' eight-game win streak as the Celtics defeated New York 118-116 Wednesday night in a game that showed in so many ways exactly how far the Knicks have come in so short a time.
"I guarantee you that Boston respects us. We are not slouches," Stoudemire said. "We are going to play every single night until the horn goes off, and Boston knows it."
Make no mistake, the Knicks clearly considered this a moral victory while conveniently overlooking the fact that Boston was missing 21 feet worth of injured centers and a key backup guard (Delonte West), and was using an All-Star point guard, Rajon Rondo, who turned his ankle and appeared to be tuning out his coach when he stayed away from the huddle after a prolonged stint on the bench midway through the second half.
And no matter what you want to say about moral victories (and the false hope they usually inspire), the Knicks did show a feistiness and an aggressiveness that nobody in a Celtics uniform had ever seen from them in this building, with the exception of Kevin Garnett back when he was a fresh face straight out of high school.
Stoudemire, with 39 points, ran his streak of consecutive 30-plus point games to nine. Raymond Felton was an energizer throughout with 26 points and 14 assists, and Danilo Galinari had a dunk over Garnett that you can be assured will lead the local sports highlights across Italy on Thursday. Wilson Chandler (18 points, 12 rebounds, two blocks) played himself into the role of Knicks Starter Most Likely To Be Paired With Landry Fields In a Trade For Carmelo Anthony.
There was no fear shown by the Knicks, who led for a vast majority of the game but were undone in the final 71 seconds, beginning when Felton got a little out of control on a drive to the basket ("There was some contact there," he said) and missed on a drive. As Felton lay on the ground, the Celtics pushed the ball upcourt and found Ray Allen in the corner for a wide-open 3-pointer that made it 116-113. Gallinari's three-point play with 50 seconds left tied it, and the Knicks had a chance to go ahead when Stoudemire missed from in close with 13.1 seconds left, setting up Boston's final possession.
Which was when Pierce did what Pierce does, sending the Celtics to their 11th straight victory -- much to the delight of a sizable and vocal contingent of Celtics fans who made their voices heard throughout a night when the building had a buzz that still didn't quite measure up to the level of electricity that was running through the old arena three days earlier, when the Knicks defeated Anthony and the Nuggets.
"We're already hungry, we're just trying to eat right now," said Stoudemire, whose team gets another tough test on national television Friday night when LeBron James and the Miami Heat make their first visit of the season, bringing a 10-game winning streak along with them, just as the Celtics did.
We've been saying here for a few days that this is more of a "Reality Check Week" for the Knicks than the "Dream Week" it is being called, and the reality of the situation is that the Knicks are still a work in progress, looking better and better with each brush stroke but far from a finished Picasso.
Yes, they put up six more points than any Boston opponent had this season, and yes, they probably earned a measure of respect from the Celtics, as Stoudemire repeatedly claimed.
But as Doc Rivers was saying before the game, there weren't any trophies being given out on this particular night. And even if the Celtics had lost, "It won't do a lot for us."
"We understand that as much as anyone," Rivers said. "Having said that, it's still fun to have these types of games. It's good when games have energy and a buzz."
This game had both those things, but it also ended with the better team winning on a shot everyone knew Pierce was going to end up taking. For the Knicks, that should constitute a reality check more than a moral victory.
And by the time the Celtics are back in this building again on March 21, the time for moral victories will have long since passed.
The Knicks can take solace knowing that they'll probably be playing for playoff positioning by that time, something they haven't done in a decade. In the bigger picture, that is the biggest moral victory of all in what has become a season in which they've shown they'll undoubtedly remain relevant past the middle of April.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.