NEW YORK (AP) – Paul Pierce scored 30 points, and the Boston Celtics blew nearly all of a 30-point lead before beating the New York Knicks 97-90 Monday night.

Two nights after erasing a 20-point deficit in a victory at New Jersey, Boston led 68-38 early in the third quarter of this one. But the Celtics went cold in the fourth quarter, allowing the Knicks to close within three points with 1:28 to play.

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.

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 pathetic Atlantic Division.

Jared Jeffries made his season debut for the Knicks and scored seven points in 32 minutes 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 through the 1991-92 season, was 26 points against Milwaukee on March 14, 2004.

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.

Boston was up 15 after three, but made only five field goals in the fourth.

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 teams don’t hold shootarounds on the morning of the second game of a back-to-back, the Celtics will have little time to adjust to the change.

AP-ES-12-11-06 2214EST

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