NEW YORK Most would agree that the Boston Celtics' reign atop the Atlantic Division is near its end.
But before you call in the pastor to read the Celtics their last rites, they have a message for you they're still very much alive and kicking.
Still, their fight was not enough as the New York Knicks rallied in the fourth for a 106-104 win.
Carmelo Anthony led all scorers with 37 points, including a pair of game-winning free throws with 16.3 seconds to play.
The down-to-the-wire finish was a bit surprising when you consider the Celtics trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half before rallying to take control in the third and most of the fourth quarter.
"We were as soft as we could be in the first quarter, and then I thought we joined into the 2011-2012 season," said Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. "From that point on, I was pretty happy with the way we played. I thought we competed well."
So well, that even after the Knicks gave up a big lead and the Celtics in turn did the same in the fourth, the C's were well positioned to still escape with the victory despite not having their leading scorer, Paul Pierce (right heel), available to play.
After Anthony's free throws gave the Knicks the lead with seconds remaining in the fourth, Marquis Daniels launched a potential game-winning 3-pointer that was off the mark.
Fortunately for Boston, Rajon Rondo -- the best player on the floor for Boston all game -- was able to haul down the loose ball and call a timeout with 4.4 seconds to play.
He finished with a team-high 31 points to go along with 13 assists, the most assists by a Celtics player on Christmas Day.
The previous record holder?
That would be Rondo, who set the mark of 12 assists in 2008 at the Los Angeles Lakers' Staples Center.
Boston had one more shot at forcing overtime or winning it with a 3-pointer.
Kevin Garnett, defended by former Celtic Billy Walker at the time, pulled up for a lightly contested jumper that was off the mark as time expired.
Garnett and Walker exchanged some words after the game, and Garnett grabbed Walker's neck briefly as players separated the two.
It is unclear if the NBA will fine or suspend Garnett for his actions, but they are expected to review the incident on Monday.
"Next question!" was Garnett's response after the game when asked about the incident involving him and Walker.
As for the actual game played, the Celtics almost came up with a Christmas Day miracle if they were able to win without Pierce.
Keeping the Celtics in the game was Rondo, who proved the Celtics don't need a 'Paul' -- Pierce or Chris Paul -- to at least compete.
Rondo led all Celtics with 31 points. He also tallied 13 assists and five steals.
Boston also got a strong game from Brandon Bass, who was making his Celtics debut.
The 6-foot-8 forward finished with a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Knicks, having squandered a lead that peaked at 17 points in the first half, were on the comeback trail in the fourth.
Leading the way was Anthony, who was limited in the third quarter because of foul trouble.
He scored the first five points of the fourth, which cut the Celtics' lead to 89-84.
But the Celtics countered with a 3-pointer from Ray Allen to give them some added cushion.
The Knicks continued to surge back into the game, and went ahead on a running jumper by Anthony that gave New York a 104-102 lead.
Sunday's loss was Boston's first to open a season since 2006. And the schedule doesn't get any easier with road games at Miami on Tuesday and New Orleans the following night.
"We're not gonna go down because we lost," said Celtics forward Sasha Pavlovic, who got the start in place of Pierce. "It's just gonna make us stronger."