NEW YORK — If the New York Knicks’ postseason continues the way it’s started, their fans will think it’s the early 1990s all over again.
Actually, even the Pat Riley-led Knicks of that era didn’t shut teams down in the playoffs quite the way the current Knicks have silenced the Boston Celtics in the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals thus far.
After allowing just 25 second-half points in Game 1 on Saturday (a playoff team low for Boston at the time), the second-seeded Knicks held the seventh-seeded Celtics to just 23 points after halftime (a new franchise playoff low for Boston, and the same for points allowed, for New York), in an 87-71 Game 2 victory at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, to take a 2-0 series lead.
Head coach Doc Rivers joked, “I guess they say, the series hasn’t started — and, I’ve heard this corny line a million times — until the road team wins. I’m positive the series has started, because we’re down 2-0,” before rhetorically asking, “That’s brilliant, right?”
Sitting in the same spot several minutes later, Knicks reserve guard J.R. Smith, unaware of Rivers earlier comments, ironically said, “The series never really starts until you win a game on the other team’s court.”
Same subject, two totally different perspectives.
And yet, very appropriate, given the opposite situations each team finds itself in as the series shifts venues for Game 3.
“I thought [the Knicks’] intensity,” Rivers said, was the biggest difference in second half. “They hung in there and didn’t let us throw a knockout punch, and I thought in the second half, they turned that around on us, and they threw a knockout punch. Several.”
Similar to how New York spotted Boston a 53-49 halftime lead before holding the Celtics to just 7-for-27 second-half shooting in Game 1, the Knicks trailed 48-42 at the break in Game 2, prior to turning up their defensive energy several notches.
As a result, the Celtics, who made 19 of their first 33 shots, missed their final field goal attempt of the opening half, before going just 7-for-36 (19.4 percent) in the second half.
“They attacked us, and we didn’t handle it very well,” Rivers said. “I don’t know what we are doing wrong in the beginning of third quarters… it was a tale of two halves. It was disappointing for us.”
Rivers’ counterpart, head coach Mike Woodson, said, “I tinkered with our lineup a little… we weren’t matched [well] individually. They had us on our heels… we eliminated that in the second half, [and then] our pick-and-roll coverages were pretty good.”
That was a big change from the first half, as reserve forward Kenyon Martin (three points, game highs of 11 rebounds and four blocked shots) admitted, “We were not talking and helping one another [defensively, in the first half].”
To correct that, Woodson questioned his players’ level of determination and commitment at halftime, which was noted by Smith.
“Woody has been challenging us coming in at halftime,” Smith said. “Today, he told us that they were flat out playing harder than us on the defensive end, and that’s why they were beating us.”
With that taken care of, it was business as usual at the other end of the floor, in terms of who led the Knicks.
This year’s NBA scoring champion, forward Carmelo Anthony, followed up his 36 points in Game 1 with 34 points on 11 of 24 shooting from the field, while making 10 of 11 free throws. And, one day after winning the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award (which he received at mid-court before the game), Smith added 19 points on 7 of 15 shooting from the floor.
During the Knicks’ 16-2 finish to the regular season, New York normally had a tough time consistently finding a third scoring option after Anthony and Smith. Yet, after netting a complimentary 13 points in Game 1, point guard Raymond Felton scored 16 more in Game 2, on 8 of 15 shooting, while grabbing seven rebounds, as the combined trio of Anthony, Smith, and Felton produced just two fewer points than Boston.
The Knicks’ improved offense in the third quarter still went back to their suffocating defense though, according to Anthony.
“We buckled down on the defensive end and it opened up our offensive game,” Anthony said. “Our defense has been winning us our ball games… Now, in the playoffs, it is magnified times ten. Each play, each possession means that much more. [So], we have been locking down.”
Long before that, however, it was a game of streaks, as the Knicks scored six straight points to lead 13-7, before the Celtics answered with a 13-2 run, to go up, 20-15.
New York then scored the next 12 points, including the final 11 of the first quarter, with the last five of those coming from Smith — on a fadeaway jumper, and a 36-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer, to send the Knicks into the second period with a 26-20 edge.
Down 27-20, Boston responded with 12 straight points of their own, to start a 26-10 spurt during which six different Celtics scored, as Boston took its biggest lead, 46-37, with 2:18 left in the first half, before the New York later scored the final three points of the half to get to within 48-42.
While the Celtics struggled to shoot just 4 of 18 in the third quarter, the Knicks caught fire to score 32 points on 12 of 17 shooting, as Anthony made 5 of 6 shots to singlehandedly outscore Boston, 13-11, in the frame.
The Knicks remained in control thereafter as the Celtics could only get to within nine points on two occasions early in the final quarter, before seven straight New York points extended the Knicks’ lead to a very comfortable 85-69 with 5:32 remaining.
Boston was led by 18 points from forward Paul Pierce and a dozen more from forward Kevin Garnett, each of whom were plagued by foul trouble (five fouls apiece). Meanwhile, forward Jeff Green, who scored a team-high 26 points in Game 1, managed just 10 points on 3 of 11 shooting.
For a game in which typical playoff physicality was allowed, there were also some questionable touch fouls called on each side. Rivers focused particularly on the ones whistled on Garnett, in a way that might draw the coach a fine from the league office.
“I thought the fouls on Kevin (two of which came in the first 2:21 of the game) were horrendous, and had a huge effect on us,” Rivers said. “He never got his rhythm, when you could see he was [otherwise] going to have a [big] game. It hurt us.”
Although Rivers said he believes his team still “has enough to win” while playing without star point guard Rajon Rondo, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in late January, he also admitted that because his team lacks an effective point guard in Rondos’ place, the Celtics’ defensive struggles amplify the issues brought on by Rondo’s absence.
“If we don’t get stops, then we can’t play, because we don’t have the ability to walk the ball up the floor under pressure and run our offense,” Rivers said. “Our offense was directly linked to our defense in the third quarter, and it directly affected the game.”
Forward Iman Shumpert (six points) only made two shots, but they were a pair of key three-pointers that tied the game, 48-48, just barely more than two minutes into the third quarter — something that Rivers thought was a major turning point.
“We gave up those two back-to-back threes, which helped their confidence.”
From that point on, Rivers thought, “We didn’t come out with the same mentality we did in the second half. I don’t know why, and I need to find that out in the next two days.”
Starting all-star center Tyson Chandler (three points after going scoreless in Game 1, following his return from injury) played a key defensive role for the Knicks during their decisive third-quarter run, but for a second straight game, he sat out the entire fourth quarter in place of Martin.
Rivers noted the keen efforts of the 36 year-old Martin, who was pulled out of retirement by New York in late February, and who is one of several older veterans which have contributed mightily to the Knicks’ success this year.
“He’s been great, he’s been fantastic.” Rivers said. “Not only his presence in the middle, he’s just been really good with his hands, [and] he’s switching on guards. He’s another veteran [for them]… every time they bring in another guy [off the bench, they get] older and older, and better and better. They’re just smart, and they’re playing great, all of them.”
A year ago, New York’s lone victory in a five-game first-round loss to the current defending NBA champion Miami Heat, ended a decade-long stretch during which the Knicks failed to win a single playoff game — a period that included New York getting swept out of the first round by Boston two seasons ago.
Now, the Knicks suddenly have their first postseason winning streak since they were up 2-0 on Toronto in a first-round series that New York swept in three games, 13 years ago.
Game 3 of the series, to take place in Boston, on Friday night, will be the Celtics’ first home game since the tragic events that occurred during and after last week’s Boston Marathon bombings.
But, don’t expect the respectful Rivers to use that to galvanize his team. “I don’t use tragedy for sports,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right. We want to win for the city. It would be terrific. [But], it is not anything I am going to use in a press conference or with our players. We should want to win [anyway]. It would be great for our city, but that is as far as I will go.”
Still, Rivers’ players may be internally motivated by the tragedy. “The emotion is going to be high,” Garnett said. “Obviously, we haven’t been back home since all of the [those] events happened, so I’m looking forward to going home and getting some of that home love. Boston, here we come.”
Trying to go up, 3-0, the Knicks are thinking the same thing.
NOTES: Smith, a nearby New Jersey native enjoying the finest of his nine NBA seasons, said that receiving his Sixth Man Award, “Was an out of body feeling. I never really thought I would get a standing ovation at the Garden the way I did. It was great. I love the fans here. I love the Garden. It’s so easy and fun to play here. If you play good basketball, it’s easy. If you play bad basketball, they let you know. Early on in the year, a lot of people know this: I didn’t really want to come off the bench to start off with. But, my vets did a good job of keeping me with a level head and making sure I know that it was all about the team, and so far, it’s paying off.”