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NEW YORK, Dec. 11 (AP)-- A 20-point deficit erased, followed by a 30-point lead nearly blown.
The Boston Celtics have taken very different routes to a pair of victories on their road trip. And two wins in a row means a quick move up the standings in the Atlantic Division.
Paul Pierce scored 31 points, and the Celtics held on to beat the New York Knicks 97-90 on Monday night.
Two nights after erasing a 20-point deficit in a victory at New Jersey, the Celtics positioned themselves for a perfect road trip if they can beat Philadelphia on Wednesday night.
``I think it gives us confidence,'' Pierce said. ``When you got a team that's been struggling all year, to go out on the road, it's two big wins. We got one more game to go. Hopefully we'll get it done and try to build on it.''
The Celtics led 68-38 early in the third quarter before going cold in the fourth and allowing the Knicks to close within three points with 1:28 to play.
Al Jefferson had 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Celtics, who have won two in a row after a five-game skid. That allowed Boston (7-13) to move ahead of New York (8-15) and Toronto (7-14) into second place in the Atlantic.
The Knicks nearly completed the biggest comeback in franchise history - and would have if not for a dismal night at the foul line. New York was only 17-of-32 (53 percent) on free throws.
Eddy Curry scored 30 points, his 10th straight game with 20 or more. But the Knicks quickly fell behind and never threatened until late, falling to 2-3 on their season-high six-game homestand that ends Wednesday against Atlanta.
``I'm baffled by it,'' Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said. ``I thought we would come out in the first half, particularly the first 5-6 minutes of the game. ... I don't think I've been more disappointed in a loss than this one.
``I thought on a night like this with as much as we had going for us, we would come out and give a much better basketball showing than we did the first half.''
Jared Jeffries made his season debut for the Knicks and scored seven points while delivering the strong defense he was brought in to play. Jeffries, who left the Washington Wizards to sign with New York over the summer, had been out since breaking his left wrist in the first preseason game.
The largest halftime deficit ever overcome by New York in a victory was 23 points against Philadelphia on April 6, 1987. The biggest margin at any point in a game, according to records that date back through the 1991-92 season, was 26 points against Milwaukee on March 14, 2004.
``I thought we didn't have the same intensity, the same awareness that we had in the first half,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. ``I thought in the first half we did a great job on sagging on Curry, making him keep the ball on the outside and moving it around. In the second half, we just didn't do the same assignments. We didn't make any adjustments.''
Boston scored the first seven points and needed barely five minutes to build its first double-digit lead. The Celtics shot 64 percent (14-of-22) in the first quarter and built a 31-17 lead. New York was only 7-of-26 (27 percent) in the first 12 minutes.
The Celtics blew it open by scoring nine straight points in a 62-second span of the second quarter, pushing the lead to 56-31 with 4:20 remaining in the half. They led by 25 at halftime after shooting 60 percent.
The Knicks walked off the court to plenty of boos - and were greeted in much the same way after David Lee threw away the inbounds pass to start the third quarter. The lead quickly ballooned to 30 when Jefferson scored 1:16 into the period.
``When you get in a hole and you have to dig yourself out of that hole, it's tough,'' Knicks guard Stephon Marbury said. ``You've got to exert a lot of energy to try to get back into the game, let alone win the game.''
Boston was up 15 after three, but made only five field goals in the fourth. A free throw by Curry made it 93-90 with 1:28 to play, then Jeffries blocked Pierce on the other end. But apparent miscommunication between Marbury and Quentin Richardson led to a poor pass and turnover, and Pierce knocked down two free throws with 17 seconds to go and Delonte Westadded a pair 10 seconds later.
Notes: Even with Jeffries back, the Knicks were still missing normal starters Channing Frye (ankle) and Steve Francis (knee). Boston is without starter Wally Szczerbiak (ankle). ... The NBA's decision to switch back to the old leather basketball on Jan. 1 puts the Celtics in a unique position. Boston is the only team that plays Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. Since most NBA squads don't hold shootarounds the morning of the second game of a back-to-back, the Celtics will have little time to adjust to the change.