For the most part, things went well for the New York Knicks in the first game of their opening round NBA eastern conference playoff matchup with the third-seeded Boston Celtics – all but the final result.
The sixth-seeded Knicks had a strong first half while building a 12-point lead (51-39) by halftime, got solid contributions from their bench (which outscored the Celtics’ bench, 23-8), and played defense for much of the game about as well as anyone could have expected.
And, although they’re a team that’s notorious for struggling defensively, New York managed to pretty much hold the third-seeded, defending eastern conference champion Celtics in check – all except guard Ray Allen, who led Boston with 24 points.
The last of those came on a contested left-wing three-pointer with 11.6 seconds left to cap a game-closing 5-0 Boston run over the final 37 seconds which lifted the Celtics to an 87-85 victory and a 1-0 series lead.
One last defensive stop separated New York from its first postseason victory in about a decade, but Allen (9-for-15 from the field), as he’s done so often throughout his career, came through late again, one Boston possession after the Celtics scored on an easy alley-oop dunk out of a timeout to forward Kevin Garnett (15 points, game-high 13 rebounds).
That play followed a tie-breaking, left-wing three-pointer by reserve guard Toney Douglas, who led the Knicks’ charge off the bench with eight points.
Douglas, in his second year, could be called upon more heavily for the remainder of the series since veteran guard Chauncey Billups (with a wealth of playoff experience, including a championship ring with Detroit) left the game after injuring his left knee on a drive with just under a minute left.
“As I took off, it just kind of buckled on me,” said Billups (10 points, 4 assists).
“Just a strain,” he added, but Billups was already wearing a brace throughout the game (after hurting the same area less seriously in New York’s final home game against Chicago last Tuesday) and he gingerly limped off the podium following Game 1, after commenting on his status for Game 2 (Tuesday night in Boston), which at the moment, is uncertain.
In between Garnett’s dunk and Allen’s three-pointer, Knick forward Carmelo Anthony (15 points) was whistled for an offensive foul on a questionable push-off call on the left wing that was sold well by Celtic forward Paul Pierce (18 points).
Anthony had a chance to redeem himself and win the game but his right-wing three-pointer fell short at the final buzzer.
It appeared that Anthony was fouled on the shot, but nothing was called, ending a tough night for the Knicks’ best scorer, who was held to 1-for-11 shooting from the field in the second half after making 4 of 7 shots from the floor in the opening half.
Stifling Anthony was part of an overall turnaround for Boston’s defense in the second half. After being outshot 54 percent to 41 percent in the first half, the Celtics outshot the Knicks 46 percent to 33 percent in the second half.
Lacking one O’Neal (Shaquille, out with an injury) Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers credited the win to the play of his other O’Neal (Jermaine), who started at center and scored 12 points on a perfect 6-for-6 shooting from the field, while blocking a team-high four shots and grabbing three offensive rebounds to help Boston to a 44-34 overall advantage on the glass.
“We won the game tonight because of Jermaine O’Neal,” said Rivers. “His defense, presence, shot blocking, [and] toughness… won the game for us.”
After Allen made a pair of free throws to put the Celtics ahead, 30-28, Anthony scored nine points and forward Amar’e Stoudemire (game-high 28 points) added six points to pace the Knicks on 21-9 run to close the first half.
Boston outscored New York 20-13 in the third quarter however, and scored the first seven points of the final period to lead, 66-64.
Stoudemire then scored 12 points to help the Knicks to an 82-78 lead with 2:47 left, but the Celtics’ championship-caliber playoff experience, home crowd at the TD Garden, and a few home court calls (and non-calls) carried Boston down the stretch.
Obviously disappointed with the loss, Anthony remained optimistic, saying, “I’m excited about this series though,” believing that New York proved it could compete well with Boston to make it a tough series.
The Knicks will get their chance to make an even better statement in Game 2, at the TD Garden at 7 pm ET, on Tuesday, with live television coverage on TNT.