The gritty, sixth-seeded New York Knicks can certainly compete with the third-seeded, defending eastern conference champion Boston Celtics.
What they’ve yet to prove this season however, is that they can beat their Atlantic division rivals.
Thus, after failing to close out Boston in the final minutes for a fourth straight time – twice in the regular season and twice more in the postseason – New York, in heartbreaking fashion, finds itself in 2-0 hole in its NBA first-round eastern conference playoff series.
Once again, it wasn’t for a lack of effort or determination, but rather, late-game execution on the Knicks’ part, that New York lost, 96-93, in Game 2, on Tuesday night at the TD Garden in Boston.
With New York’s second and third offensive options out with injuries, the Knicks’ top scorer, forward Carmelo Anthony (a career playoff-tying high of 42 points, team highs of 17 rebounds and 6 assists), nearly carried his team to a stirring victory on the strength of one of the greatest individual performances in Knick playoff history.
Starting point guard Chauncey Billups was already in street clothes after a Game 1 knee injury and star forward Amar’e Stoudemire left in the second quarter due to back spasms, with just four points in 18 minutes.
Thus, it was up to Anthony, who rebounded from a horrid 1-for-11 second-half shooting performance, including a three-point miss at the buzzer in a two-point loss in Game 1, to rally the Knicks from an 11-point deficit late in the third quarter in Game 2.
The Knicks’ bench (which outscored Boston 23-8 in Game 1) also stepped up as much as it could, playing increased minutes out of necessity, to outscore the Celtics’ reserves, 25-14, while playing solid defense to aid Anthony’s efforts.
New York also overcame 35.6 percent (32-for-90) field goal shooting (Boston shot 47 percent, 39-for-83) by outrebounding the Celtics, 53-37.
Anthony described the challenge of playing shorthanded as, “Fun, for the most part.”
“My teammates stuck with me,” he added. “It was just a battle. For the most part, I think we played fantastic. We made other guys better. They felt confident out there.”
Especially, forward Jared Jeffries, a defensive specialist, who led the Knicks’ bench with ten points in 26 minutes after scoring a total of 46 points in 23 games since being reacquired for his second go-around with New York in early March.
However, in the final seconds, Jeffries went from unlikely hero to untimely goat at each end of the floor.
Jeffries made a tough layup in traffic to give the Knicks a 93-92 lead with 19.3 seconds left in the game, but the Celtics, who scored the final five points to win Game 1, got the last four points to pull out Game 2.
On the next possession, forward Kevin Garnett (12 points, team-high 10 rebounds) backed his way into the paint against Jeffries and after a needed double team never arrived, Garnett made a right-handed jump hook shot over Jeffries to give Boston the lead for good, 94-93, lead with 13.3 seconds remaining.
As in Game 1, New York had one last chance to win with the ball in Anthony’s hands on the right wing, but a good double team forced Anthony to pass to Jeffries on the right blocks.
Jeffries appeared to have a chance at a go-ahead layup, but he opted for a pass to guard Bill Walker (2 points on 0-for-11 field goal shooting in 33 minutes), who was standing alone in the lane.
Garnett alertly got a hand on Jeffries’ attempted pass and secured a steal, leading to a Boston time out with 4.4 seconds left.
Anthony then gave guard David West (4 points) too much room as the Celtics inbounded to West in the backcourt.
That allowed West to dribble the clock down to just :00.6 seconds before Anthony could foul West, who made two free throws to close the scoring before a desperation backcourt heave from Walker fell well short at the final buzzer.
Another damaging thing to the Knicks’ hopes was that Anthony wasn’t the only player with a playoff career high scoring night. Celtics’ starting point guard Rajon Rondo led Boston with 30 points and seven assists.
Despite another gut-wrenching loss to the Celtics, the Knicks’ gallant resolve under difficult conditions, accompanied by the fact that New York knows it could easily be up 2-0 before playing a home game in the series, has buoyed the Knicks’ self-assurance returning to New York.
“I’ve never been more proud of the team, given the circumstances, how hard they battled,” said Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni. “We had a chance to win, we just didn’t quite do it… we’re still confident. I’m sure it’s going to be a great atmosphere [for Game 3 at Madison Square Garden] and Amar’e will be ready. Our heads are high and the locker room is good, and I can’t wait to [see us] play.”
On Stoudemire, D’Antoni added, “I think he should be okay Friday, I think he [hurt his back] in warm-ups, just a little twinge.”
Anthony added, “We can’t hang our heads over something like this, we have to take it and build on it going back home.”
The way the Knicks have performed thus far, there’s little reason to think that the series is over yet.
But, as with the regular season, moral victories don’t count in the postseason, and the Knicks need to finally finish out a full a game against the Celtics.
They’ll get that chance next, at Madison Square Garden in New York, in Game 3 on Friday night, with live television coverage on MSG-TV at 7 pm ET.