Despite suffering a pair of close losses in Boston, the New York Knicks looked like they might give the Boston Celtics all they could handle in a long seven-game series.
Then, the real defending eastern conference champion Celtics showed up in New York for the next two games.
Third-seeded Boston picked up where it left off from Friday night’s easy Game 3 win at Madison Square Garden and built a huge lead in the same building on Sunday afternoon en route to a 101-89 Game 4 victory to complete a first-round NBA playoff sweep over sixth-seeded New York.
The Knicks at least put up more of a fight than they did in Game 3, rallying from a 23-point third-quarter deficit to get as close as four points with 7½ minutes remaining.
But, as usual, the quartet of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Garnett stepped up late, combining for all of the Celtics’ final 17 points to send the Knicks home for the summer and guarantee that New York will wait at least an eleventh straight year before winning another postseason game.
While Pierce and Allen torched the Knicks for more than 30 points each with some sharp shooting on Friday night, each player was of-target for the most part on Sunday. Pierce missed nine of his first ten shots from the field and finished just 5 of 18 from the floor to score 13 points, and Allen made just 5 of 13 field goal attempts to score 14 points.
This time though, it was Garnett’s turn to abuse New York, with team highs of 26 points (making 10 of 16 shots from the floor) and ten rebounds. And, Rondo, as he did throughout the series, ran Boston’s offense with crisp efficiency, handing out 12 assists one game after posting a Celtics’ playoff record 20 assists in Game 3. Rondo, who scored 21 points while shooting 8 of 12 from the floor on Sunday, finished the series with an impressive 48 assists.
Forward Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 32 points while adding nine rebounds, but before a three-point play by fellow star forward Amar’e Stoudemire with 36.4 seconds left in the opening half, Anthony had 19 points while no other Knick had more than three.
Ultimately, Stoudemire, with great heart and courage, playing through the pain of a strained back muscle since the first half of Game 2, finished with 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds after starting just 1-for-10 from the field.
Stoudemire was far from the only Knick to struggle with his shooting. New York shot just 34.1 percent (30-for-88) from the floor, including just 23.4 percent (11-for-47) in the first half while making just 3 of 20 field goal attempts in the second quarter with starting point guard Chauncey Billups missing his third straight game due to a knee injury he suffered toward the end of Game 1.
Unlike Game 3, when the Knicks trailed 22-5, New York stayed within a couple of possessions from the opening tip, until a Rondo jumper closed the first-quarter scoring and gave Boston a 29-23 lead.
Forward Glen Davis then gave the Celtics a lift in the second period, scoring eight of his 14 points to help Boston outscore New York 26-15 in the quarter to put the Celtics comfortably ahead (55-38) by halftime.
The Celtics started the third quarter on a 9-3 run to take their biggest lead, 64-41, on a pair of Garnett free throws 1:42 in the period.
But, the Knicks, as they did in the first two games of the series in Boston, showed a lot of heart, finishing the quarter on a 29-18 run to pull to within 82-72 entering the final period.
New York started the fourth quarter on an 8-2 spurt to pull to within 84-80, energizing the Garden crowd and forcing a Boston time out with 7:33 left in the game.
However, Pierce then made a driving layup to touch off a 17-9 game-closing run, as two jumpers by reserve point guard Anthony Carter (who led New York’s bench with 11 points) were the only made fields by the Knicks in the final 7:34, other than a harmless Anthony three-pointer in the final minute.
Boston, which finished its first playoff sweep since beating Indiana in three games in 1992, and its first four-game postseason sweep since beating Milwaukee in the 1986 eastern conference finals, awaits the winner of the Miami-Philadelphia series in the eastern conference semifinals. Second-seeded Miami missed a chance to match Boston’s sweep on Sunday, but leads Philadelphia, 3-1.
As for New York, optimism reigned even after being swept out of the first round.
Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni said, “Boston’s a better team than we are in every sense of the word… we have to get up to that level… but, I really just liked the heart the whole series. These guys, I thought, played as hard as they could, and that’s all you can ask for.”
He also noted what the playoffs meant for a lot of his reserves who were forced into action with Billups and Stoudemire hurt. “We had a lot of young guys and this was a great experience for them,” said D’Antoni. “They’ll learn from this and they’ll get better… experience is something you can’t manufacture, and for a lot of [our] guys, this is the first time [they played] any meaningful minutes in the playoffs… this will help them.”
D’Antoni also praised the leadership of Stoudemire while looking toward the future with Stoudemire and Anthony leading the way. “I just don’t think we can congratulate him enough,” said D’Antoni of Stoudemire. “He’s been unbelievable all year, as a leader and as a person, and I would think that with him and Carmelo going forward, the Knicks are in good shape.”
On playing with Stoudemire, Anthony said, “The sky’s the limit… we’re only going to get better [as a “tandem and] as a team. I can’t wait for that. We’ve only been together two months… we will make it work… we’ve got a long way to go, but some happier times are ahead of us.”
“I’m excited about the upcoming seasons,” he added. “We proved to a lot of people, short-handed or not, that we’re going to compete… this is the first step of something great that’s [going] to come in the next couple of years… [we’re] trying to bring the hope and the faith back to New York, trying to bring New York Knicks’ basketball back and give the fans something that they can look forward to on a year in and year out basis.”
“We wanted to do more and go further,” admitted Stoudemire, “But, ‘The Knicks Are Back’ statement (made by Stoudemire shortly after his off-season signing by the Knicks last summer) is definitely true, and the league knows it now, and it’s just a matter of us to continue to try and work together now and grow as a team.”
While the additions of Stoudemire and Anthony this season were the foundations of that hope for the future, further roster changes will likely be necessary, something which Anthony expects to have a say in along with Stoudemire and Billups.
Said Anthony, “I’m pretty sure I’ll be talking to [Knicks’ President of Basketball Operations] Donnie [Walsh] or [Knicks’ owner James] Dolan, and Amar’e will be there, and Chauncey will be there, just trying to figure out some ways where we can become not just a playoff team, but a championship caliber team.”