NEW YORK – For the New York Knicks, Friday evening was a chance to forget about most of the past decade and get back into their first playoff series in a while.
Instead, what was supposed to be a Garden party, became a Boston Three party.
Playing their first home playoff game in nearly seven years, on the ten year anniversary of their last postseason victory, the shorthanded, sixth-seeded Knicks trailed from start to finish in a humiliating 113-96 loss which put the third-seeded, defending eastern conference champion Boston Celtics one more win from an NBA first-round playoff sweep.
After surprisingly battling the Celtics to the final seconds of two very close losses in Boston, the Knicks should have been energized by an electric, orange-clad, towel-waving crowd that filled a sold-out Madison Square Garden with boisterous “Let’s Go Knicks!” and “Boston Sucks!” chants prior to tip-off.
But, with starting point guard Chauncey Billups sidelined (following a knee injury in the final minute of Game 1) and star forward Amar’e Stoudemire severely limited due to back spasms for the second straight game, the Celtics quickly quieted the Garden crowd and its deflated team by scoring the first nine points en route to a commanding 22-5 lead that proved to be the exact difference in the final outcome.
Sans Billups, and with a weakened Stoudemire, the slow start was simply too much for New York to overcome, as was the play of the trio of Celtics’ stars forward Paul Pierce (game-high 38 points, 14-19 fg), guard Ray Allen (32 points), and point guard Rajon Rondo, who had a triple-double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 20 (a game-high) of Boston’s 31 assists.
“You come out and you hit them first,” said Pierce of Boston’s fast beginning. “You don’t give the crowd a reason to get involved. That was big, when we came out with that run to start the game. We were comfortable from there on out.”
That was made easy by Rondo running the Boston offense in a way that Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers compared to a baseball catcher calling a good game for a pitcher. “I thought Rondo had one of those great catcher games,” he said. “When he does that, it allows us to run pretty much what we want to run [offensively].”
While Rivers’ team able to do that, the Knicks ultimately collapsed under the weight of the Celtics’ three-point shooting barrage, as Boston made 14 of 24 shots from behind the arc, with all of those makes coming from Pierce (6-for-8) and Allen (8-for-11).
“I think once Ray got off early and then Paul got going, it seemed like a domino effect.” said New York forward Carmelo Anthony. “Everybody starting hitting shots… [and] Rondo had a hell of a game.”
Meanwhile, without Billups and Stoudemire to compliment him at the other end of the floor, Anthony reverted back to the similar poor-shooting, 15-point performance he had in Game 1 of the series after nearly carrying his team on his own healthy back to a Game 2 win with one of the great individual postseason performances in Knick franchise history.
Following his 42 points and 17 rebounds in Game 2, Anthony was again held to 15 points on just 4 of 16 shooting from the field on Friday night.
With New York lacking all of its usual offensive options, Boston was able to key defensively on Anthony, who said, “Every time I got the ball, they sent someone over… in the mid-post area or elbow, they loaded up. That makes it tough when you get the ball [and] you are looking at two, three guys… they weren’t loosening up.”
And, although many were hoping for an inspiring Willis Reed-like moment from Stoudemire, his bad back wouldn’t allow it, as he finished with just seven points (making 2 of 8 field goal attempts) and three rebounds in nearly 33 minutes.
“I couldn’t make any sharp, quick moves,” admitted Stoudemire. “The last few days, every step hurt. I felt it in my back. I have never had a strained muscle in my back. I had a hard time putting my socks and shoes on, [and] I had a hard time sitting.”
Fittingly, the Knicks now have their collective backs to the wall, trailing three games to none in their best-of-seven series.
Anthony, who played only three minutes in the fourth quarter, admired the fight of his injured teammate though. “Nobody expected him to go out there and be a superhero,” he said. “He gave us what he could and I respect that.”
While the Knicks’ starters (outscored by Boston’s starters, 100-44) were hurting, their bench (which outscored Boston’s bench, 23-8, in Game 1, and 25-14, in Game 2) sparked a comeback that temporarily got New York back in the game early.
The Knicks’ reserves (which outscored the Celtics’ bench, 52-13) scored 13 points during a 19-7 run that was capped by a beautiful spin into the lane and a lay-in by Stoudemire that cut Boston’s lead to 29-24 with 9:59 left in the opening half. Ailing however, Stoudemire wasn’t able to repeat that type of signature play vey often.
New York got as close as that same five-point margin four more times in the period, but an Allen three-pointer pushed Boston’s lead back to 11 points before the Celtics settled for 52-44 halftime advantage.
Pierce (10) and Allen (8) then combined for 18 points to help Boston put the game away with a 34-19 third quarter which sent New York off the court to a chorus of boos, trailing 86-63 entering the final period.
The jeers quickly turned to cheers again as the Knicks scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter, but with a chance to cut the Celtics’ deficit to 12 points, guard Landry Fields (2 points) missed a pair of free throws and 12 seconds later, Pierce made another three-pointer to extend Boston’s lead to 91-72, with 8:44 left.
If the pre-game sights of Billups in street clothes and a gingerly-moving Stoudemire weren’t enough clues for Knick fans to see how Game 3 might go, the game program, which listed the home team as the “NEW YORK KNICS” on the game scorecard, might have offered another sign (apparently those who put together the program were as used to the Knicks being in the playoffs as everyone else has been over the past several years).
The prognostication for Game 4, back at the Garden at 3:30 pm ET on Sunday, doesn’t appear to offer any further hope for the Knicks.
“There is no way I’ll be 100 percent by Sunday,” said Stoudemire.
Thus, leaving Knick fans with perhaps a different Boston-New York series as the only thing on which to draw inspiration from – when baseball’s Boston Red Sox rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to shock the New York Yankees and win the 2004 American League Championship Series in seven games after, like the Knicks, getting blown out at home in Game 3 (by a score of 19-8).
Certainly, stranger things have happened. But, without Billups and Stoudemire’s back in good health, chances are extremely slim there will be any comebacks for this year’s Knicks.