The Knicks spoke hopefully about improved defense and addressed the topic in optimistic tones. Statistically there may have been an improvement, but until defensive rotations are something the Knicks consistently excel at, nobody will ever associate them with the good defensive teams.

That was the ultimate decider yesterday afternoon when Kevin Garnett’s buzzer-beating 19-footer gave the Knicks a frustrating 107-105 loss on a day in which might have been their finest performance of the season.

The Knicks head out on their first West Coast trip with three wins in 13 games and will do so knowing they might have been inches away from beating one of the league’s best outfits. Instead they will head out with another loss and more talk of learning because of what they didn’t do on the final play after David Lee’s dunk with nine seconds left tied it at 105-105.

Following a timeout, Pierce began penetrating as he was going for a layup or looking for a foul. The Knicks still had one foul to give as Wilson Chandler and David Lee trailed Pierce.

Pierce was about 12 feet away and in the paint when he spotted a wide-open Garnett. Garnett had been 3-for-14 at that point but had his best look at the basket because Al Harrington was late in rotating over and when the reserve forward failed he was discussing that failure as opposed to a 30-point night that led the Knicks to a win.

“The game plan definitely wasn’t to give Garnett an open jumper,” Harrington added. “So we messed up one part of the post game. We wanted to give the foul if Pierce was going to the hole but that never happened.”

“We talked about waiting and stopping Pierce’s progress and we did that and didn’t think they would have time to throw back and still get a shot off,” Lee said. “I’m expecting Pierce to try and make a move and pull up.”

If they had better execution down the stretch perhaps that would have been the case or if two guys did not trail Pierce, leaving Garnett open they might have won. Instead they’re left lamenting what could have been and hopefully talking about better defense.

“Our defense is a lot better,” coach Mike D’Antoni said.

“Our defense has been miles ahead of where it was,” Lee added.

Maybe that is true in some areas but it did not show up on the final possession and a two-point loss where the Celtics shoot 41.7 percent counts equally as a blowout defeat where the opponent shoots 50 percent.

The game plan wasn’t for the Knicks to open this way even with a team filled with expiring contracts and a front office focused on big free agents in 2010 but nothing has gone the way the Knicks have hoped for years and this outcome fits that theme.

There were times when they seemed destined to pull off the upset. There were other instances when that appeared highly unlikely.

The Knicks overcame a 14-point deficit midway through the third and took an 82-77 lead into the fourth. They were fortunate to advance another five minutes after blowing a seven-point lead and giving the Celtics three extra points on an Eddy Curry flagrant foul on Rajon Rondo with 5:21 left.

The Celtics never used that as a spark and the Knicks forced overtime when Harrington hit two free throws with 4.7 seconds left and Rondo missed a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

Trouble in overtime began for the Knicks when they were unable to stop Pierce and missed five straight shots. That still did not decide matters and the Knicks appeared headed for five more minutes when Lee drove for a baseline dunk with 9.3 seconds remaining.

It excited the crowd but in the end it only set the Knick fans up for more disappointment.
“I thought we played well enough to win,” Lee said. “We thought we had those guys.”