NEW YORK – New York Knicks’ forward Amar’e Stoudemire kept one streak going on Wednesday night, but he would have gladly traded it to continue another one.
Even with a stiff neck, playing against the best defense in the NBA, Stoudemire, who continued to receive the “MVP!” chants he heard on Sunday from appreciative Knick fans, made 13 of his first 17 field goal attempts and finished 15 of 22 from the field en route to a 39-point night (to lead all scorers) while extending his Knick franchise record streak to nine straight 30-point games.
However, it was Stoudemire’s final two tries – one that came up short, and the other, a split-second too late – which allowed forward Paul Pierce to steal the role of last-second hero for the Boston Celtics, and stop the Knicks’ longest win streak in almost sixteen years.
After trailing by double digits in each of the first three quarters, and by seven at the start of the final period, Boston (20-4) won its eleventh straight game as Pierce (team-high 32 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists) dribbled the clock down and with Stoudemire guarding him, made a 14-foot, step-back jumper with just 0.4 seconds left.
The clutch shot, like so many others in Pierce’s highly successful 13-year NBA career, broke the game’s seventh tie and gave the Celtics a thrilling 118-116 victory before a raucous, sold out Madison Square Garden crowd, and a national ESPN television audience on Wednesday night.
After scoring just six of his 30 points in the first half of a home win over Denver on Sunday, Stoudemire started against Boston with a strong sense of purpose and lot of aggression, especially with the Celtics’ pair of O’Neal centers (Shaquille and Jermaine) absent with injuries.
Stoudemire scored the Knicks’ first seven points to help New York (16-10) tie the game, 7-7, and finished the opening period with 17 points.
Forward Wilson Chandler (10 of his 18 points in the first quarter, 12 rebounds) and Stoudemire alone, combined to outscore Boston in the period, which trailed 32-24 after the opening quarter.
However, down 43-35 in the second quarter, four different Celtics scored during an 8-0 run that tied the game, 45-45, with 2:54 left in the first half.
But, point guard Raymond Felton (26 points, 14 of New York’s 19 assists) scored seven points and Stoudemire added five points during a 13-6 New York run to close the half and give the Knicks a 58-51 lead at the break, after Felton beat the first half buzzer, banking in a running 29-footer over ex-Knick guard Nate Robinson (9 points off the bench).
Pierce scored five points to key a 10-4 Boston run to that trimmed New York’s lead to just 62-61, three minutes into the second half.
Knick forward Danilo Galinari (all 20 of his points in the second half) woke up though, scoring on a great reverse dunk.
Gallinari then added five more points on a left-corner three-pointer and a left-wing jumper during a 17-8 Knicks’ run that pushed New York’s lead to a game-high twelve points, 79-67, with 5:06 left in the third quarter.
Boston then twice cut the lead to four points, but Felton again scored three points just before the buzzer, as he drew a foolish foul on Pierce, far from the basket, on the right wing, and made all three free throws to give the Knicks a 90-83 lead heading into the final period.
With star point guard Rajon Rondo (10 points, team-high 14 assists) rolling his ankle with 11:37 left and leaving the game until the 8:35 mark, Robinson scored five points to pull the Celtics to within 92-88.
The Knicks go up by four points seven times thereafter, but the lead would never climb higher than that margin for either team.
While New York did much of its offensive damage on the perimeter, Boston hung close by scoring in the paint, where the Celtics held a 62-50 advantage.
A driving layup by Felton gave the Knicks a 113-109 lead with 2:19 remaining, but forward Kevin Garnett (20 points, team-high 13 rebounds) scored the next four points on a follow dunk and a couple of free throws, to tie the game at 113-all, with 1:29 left.
Felton then missed a forced driving layup attempt before Pierce found guard Ray Allen (26 points) on a nice no-look pass, for a right-corner three-pointer with 1:02 remaining, to give Boston a 116-113 lead (its first since leading 4-3 in the opening seconds).
Gallinari answered though, with an awkward-looking, yet very effective running floater from the left blocks, while drawing Pierce’s fifth personal foul.
Turning earlier boos – for missing all three free throws after being fouled on a three-pointer in the second quarter – into cheers, Gallinari sank the free throw to tie the game at 116 apiece, with 50.4 seconds left.
Rondo then made an errant pass looking for Allen in the right corner. A Knick steal of Rondo’s pass led to a chance for Stoudemire to put New York back in front.
But, Stoudemire, who was unstoppable for nearly the entire game, missed a short four-foot jumper in the lane off of a pick-and-roll with Felton.
Pierce, who formed a wall in front of Stoudemire on the shot, secured the rebound, and Boston called timeout with 12.2 seconds left, setting the stage for Pierce to deliver the dagger which ultimately ended the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak.
The Knicks called timeout as Robinson jubilantly leaped over Pierce and fell on the Garden floor before Pierce then took an early victory lap around the court.
After Pierce’s jumper, Stoudemire, who extended his scoring streak by the end of the third quarter, had one last chance to keep New York from suffering a defeat for the first time since a home loss to Atlanta on November 27th.
Stoudemire buried a three-pointer off a front-court, inbounds pass, sending the already buzzing crowd into a frenzy as Stoudemire’s teammates mobbed him in premature celebration.
But, officials correctly ruled that the shot was released barely after the final buzzer sounded.
After an extensive review, with both teams huddled near mid-court, overlooking officials reviewing replay monitors, the initial ruling on Stoudemire’s shot was upheld.
The loss prevented Stoudemire from making history as the first NBA player to score ate least 30 points in nine straight games while winning each time.
Although the Knicks, after a decade of futility through last season, were dissatisfied with simply a moral victory, they were encouraged for the future by very nearly keeping a hot streak going against the defending eastern conference champions, who are again an NBA title contender this year.
New York head coach Mike D’Antoni said, “This was a test. I thought we matched them point for point. We just have to get a little bit better… we went through ten years of not much fun to get to this spot… we are a young team that can improve as is. This is only the middle of December, so things will get better for sure.”
Although they admit that one of those areas in which to improve is on defense, the Knicks can take some further temporary solace in the fact that they forced a normally grind-it-out team with league’s leading defense (entering the game allowing just 91 points per contest) to play the Knicks more up-tempo style (New York came into the evening leading the NBA with 108.5 points per game).
And, of course, the Knicks did lead most of the game. “We had them all night,” said Stoudemire. “We are playing great,” he added of a team which lost for only the second time in fifteen games. “We are ahead of where we thought we would be at this point. We have room to improve… we are already hungry, we’re just trying to eat right now.”
When asked before the game, if the Knicks’ recent resurgence had revived a dormant rivalry between the Knicks and Celtics, Pierce dismissed the notion, saying “There won’t be a rivaly until I’m done playing.”
But, just hours later, after battling the Knicks to the final buzzer on Wednesday, Pierce recanted, “The Knicks have arrived and they’re going to be a team to be reckoned with in the division, and that started tonight.”
“We definitely earned respect,” Stoudemire said. “I guarantee you that Boston respects us [now]. We are not slouches. We are going to play [hard] every single night, and Boston knows it. They know how good we can be and how good we are. We will see them again.”
Well, not until March 21st.
By then, the Knicks might look a lot different, with some of their young talent possibly shipped out for Denver superstar Carmelo Anthony after the February NBA trade deadline.
For now though, what matters is that it seems that basketball is finally back in New York after a long hiatus of irrelevancy under old regimes that didn’t work.
Former Knicks of better days before the recent down years, John Starks and Anthony Mason were at the game on Wednesday night, and both were thrilled to see some of the Knicks’ old fight return to MSG in this year’s Knicks.
“The biggest difference that I see between now and the past couple years,” said Mason, “is they would take a left hook and they would fall. Now, they take a punch and they keep coming… Their offense is incredible. They just have to tighten up on the defensive end. But, there’s a presence that wasn’t here for the last few years.”
As Mason said, it was indeed far too long since there was a playoff atmosphere for a Knick home game at all, let alone in mid-December, as there has been for the past two home games, during a big three-game home stand that started with the Knicks beating Denver on Sunday, continued with giving Boston all it could handle, and which will conclude on Friday night, with the first-place Miami (19-8) – on its own ten-game winning streak – and its star power of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh paying a visit to the Garden on Friday night.
Win or lose on Friday, you can be sure that unlike past recent seasons, the Garden will again be rocking with enthusiasm and the rebirth of positive vibes for the not-too-distant future of Knick basketball.