NEW YORK — What a difference three weeks can make.
Back on January 12, the New York Knicks won an exciting, high-scoring game at Madison Square Garden amid a raucous type of playoff atmosphere which has rarely been felt in New York’s home arena over the past 2½ seasons.
That night finished with the Knicks and Celtics each at .500 and one game back of the Orlando Magic for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
Twenty-one days later, New York (23-28) and Boston (28-22) are going in opposite directions, punctuated by the Celtics’ 97-89, defensive-minded, revenge win over the Knicks at the Garden on Tuesday night.
After scoring 120 points on 53.1 percent shooting the previous time against Boston, in a hard-fought, six-point victory, New York at times, heard some boos while being held to only 37.8 percent from the field and under 90 points for just the 11th time this season (the Knicks have lost all of those games) in the latest Knicks-Celtics meeting.
The prior time against Boston, Rookie of the Year candidate Kristaps Porzingis led the way for New York with 26 points and starting guard Arron Afflalo followed a 2-for-9 start from the field with a 7-for-9 finish, while adding 24 points. Star forward Carmelo Anthony also chipped in 17 points on efficient 7-of-10 shooting before leaving with an ankle injury after just 18 minutes.
This time, Porzingis was limited to only 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting, Anthony (despite grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds) scored 16 points while missing 12 of 16 shots, and Afflalo, after starting 5-for-6, ended just 2-for-10.
“Personally, it was a very bad game for myself,” Anthony said. “When I’m not playing my best out there, I think it affects the team and we showed that tonight.”
The reversal of numbers over the last two Boston-New York matchups mirrored the teams’ sharp reversal of fortunes between those two games.
Since the Knicks last beat the Celtics, Boston is 9-3, including 6-1 in its past seven games, and is as many as six games over .500 for the first time this season. Conversely, New York has basically been the exact antithesis, at 3-8 over the same stretch, with losses in six of its past seven games, while dropping to as much as five games under .500 for the first time this year.
Even the way Tuesday night’s game started was fitting in that regard, with the Knicks scoring the first nine points only to see the Celtics answer with the next nine.
Similar to the teams’ identical .500 winning percentage after New York last beat Boston — followed by the Celtics and Knicks diverging in vastly different directions ever since — was each club’s shooting percentages in Boston’s latest win.
At halftime, the Celtics were 17-for-44 and the Knicks 17-for-42. But Boston shot 50 percent (23-for-46) in the second half while New York went 14-for-40 (35 percent).
That was apropos when comparing to the East standings over the past three weeks.
It’s not as if the Knicks are in exclusive company among Eastern teams with playoff aspirations which have struggled over that time.
More than half of the eight Eastern Conference teams — Atlanta (5-7), Chicago (4-6), Miami (5-6), Detroit (5-6) and Indiana (3-7) — joined New York in having losing records between the past two Knicks-Celtics games.
Indiana dropped from the five spot down to eighth, Chicago moved one spot down, to fifth, and Orlando — which was in eighth-place three weeks ago — has, while falling into a tie with the Knicks for 11th-place in the conference, played even worse than New York (going 1-8) over the past three weeks. But the Magic is the only playoff contending team in the East to do so over that time.
Washington went just 4-6 in the same span, but has still climbed into 10th-place, one half-game ahead of New York, thanks mainly to the Knicks’ poor recent stretch.
Charlotte, meanwhile, has gone 6-5, to move ahead of each of them. and into ninth-place, two games behind Indiana, while first-place Cleveland, second-place Toronto, third-place Atlanta, sixth-place Miami and seventh-place Detroit have all held their respective spots over the past three weeks.
And as New York has slipped, Boston’s surge has pushed the Celtics from that earlier ninth-place tie with the Knicks into a third-place tie with Atlanta.
“They’re ahead of us right now,” reserve forward Derrick Williams said of Boston. “They beat us two out of three (including an earlier clash in Boston), but at the same time, we know how good we are. We’ve just got to show it with consistency every single night, no matter who we’re playing.
“We’ve got to get everybody involved again. I think that’s one of the main things. I don’t think we’re out there sharing the ball enough… I think whenever you pass the ball [often], the ball finds you later on in the game. So I think we’ve just got to play for each other a little bit more and we’ll get back on the right track.”
Afflalo, who recently dubbed the Knicks as being playoff-caliber this season, added, “The numbers don’t lie. [The Celtics] have played well since [we beat them], but by no stretch of the imagination are we too far removed to compete for our ultimate goal… our recent losses are very tough to take and hopefully, we learn something from this, and we end up having a positive experience.
“Obviously, we know what we’re playing for. We’ve got to keep a big picture approach and can’t get too high or too low, but as time goes on, we’ve got to start winning games. It’s frustrating to lose to a team who we’re battling with [for a playoff spot], but it’s not the end-all, be-all. That’s not to say that we have [a lot of] time (with 31 games left in the regular season), but we do have [enough] time to improve and get better.”
Having a few pieces out of the lineup lately has made that a challenge, however.
“The reality of the injuries is there,” head coach Derek Fisher said. “For sure, it’s impacted us, but we’re also just in a tough stretch, in a tough part of our season right now, whether it’s injuries or not. There aren’t any excuses or explanations other than just not getting the job done in terms of being able to go out and bringing the game to our opponent.”
Williams, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes against Boston three weeks ago before being held to just six points and two rebounds in 11 minutes on Tuesday night, pointed to the loss of regular starting point guard Jose Calderon as part of the Knicks’ problems of late.
“He’s great at probing the defense,” Williams said, after seeing second-year guard Langston Galloway start in place of Calderon and finish with just one point and two assists in 34 minutes. “He wants to get everybody involved and he’s not a shot-first point guard, but he will shoot it and he will knock down shots.
“Whenever you have a point guard like that, he helps out everybody. “Langston’s done a good job in [Calderon’s] spot, but… [he and] (fellow reserve point guard, rookie [Jerian] Grant [are] both young. Jose has been in the game  years now, so he knows… what we need in the game at that right moment.”
With Calderon missing the past four games, New York has failed to reach its season field goal percentage of 43.8 percent in six of its past seven games.
Yet Afflalo had a different take on what has been ailing New York, saying, “It’s just defense. We can talk about shots, we can talk about all the other stuff [offensively], but honestly, if we get the stops [we need] and we don’t turn the ball over, those [other] things don’t get magnified.”
Remaining positive, Williams said, “It’s a learning curve for us, but we know why we’re losing. Sometimes, teams don’t really know why they’re losing, they’re just taking losses… we’ve just got to get back to sharing the ball, knocking down shots and picking our defense up.”
That has to happen soon, with a trip to Detroit (against one of the teams the Knicks are chasing) on Thursday night, before three straight home games (against Memphis, Denver and fellow Eastern playoff competitor Washington) over the five days to follow.
“It’s a big week for us,” Anthony said. “We’ve got some home games… our focus is to… get some wins and protect our home court.”
As New York’s leader on the roster, Anthony won’t let his teammates dwell on the Knicks’ recent losses for long.
“The morale is good,” he said. “[We have] a sense of urgency to know that we’ve got to turn this thing around quickly because it can’t start going downhill. We don’t want that… but the morale and the confidence of this team is not going anywhere. I won’t allow that to happen.”
Game photos by Jon Wagner, New York Sports Day; standings graphics courtesy of NBA.com.