There were plenty of reasons the New York Knicks should have been blown out by the Boston Celtics at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. Instead, they nearly pulled off a holiday miracle, going on an improbable 11-2 run in a little over a minute, to forge a tie with 1:06 remaining.
But while that late effort was appreciated from the Knicks’ 253rd consecutive sellout crowd, New York (16-14) ultimately sent its festive fans home with a disappointing a lump of coal, after a 119-114 loss to Boston (18-13) on one of the rare days when Christmas coincided with the first day of Hanukkah.
In some ways, the loss was a season microcosm of what has been holding the Knicks (fifth in the East) back from taking the next step — following three straight losing years — and transforming into a top-four team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
New York was able to do several good things, but also did more poorly enough to stay 1½ games behind Boston for third-place in the conference instead of moving a half-game ahead of the Celtics.
For only the third time this season, the Knicks had their three best offensive players reach at least 20 points in the same game (it was the fourth time this year for the team overall), with forward Carmelo Anthony (29 points) being supplemented by point guard Derrick Rose (25 points) and forward Kristaps Porzingis (22 points).
New York also went over a 100 points for the 23rd time this season (losing for only the eighth time when that’s happened) and outrebounded Boston, 49-39, including 18-12 on the offensive glass, which helped translate to a 17-8 edge in second-chance points. It was only the Knicks’ fourth loss in 17 games when New York has outrebounded its opponents.
Those were all good things that would have otherwise set New York up for success, if not for the other circumstances which provided a source of some holiday frustration for Knicks fans before a national television audience.
Although Anthony was pivotal (finishing 7-for-11 for the floor) while leading New York back with 22 second-half points (including 15 in the third quarter), he contributed to his team’s earlier deficit by starting just 2-for-13.
Moreover, with the Knicks down three points (immediately following a go-ahead 3-pointer by the Celtics’ Marcus Smart), Anthony had the ball stripped by guard Avery Bradley for the 16th of New York’s 17 turnovers, with 18.8 seconds left, which essentially ended the Knicks’ comeback attempt.
Giving all of the credit to Bradley, Anthony said simply, “He got his hand on the ball and made a good defensive play.”
Two things which started out great for New York were its overall defense (allowing 22 points in the first quarter, while taking a six-point lead), and holding Boston to just 2-for-15 shooting from 3-point range while maintaining a 37-33 lead with just over seven minutes left in the opening half.
That quickly changed, however, as the Celtics made seven of their next eight 3s to fuel a 25-11 half-closing run that put Boston ahead, 56-48.
The Celtics’ second-quarter outburst was the first of three straight periods in which Boston scored over 30 points, as the Knicks nearly allowed triple digits (97 points) after the opening frame.
“Defensively, we weren’t great,” head coach Jeff Hornacek admitted.
Considering that, along with Porzingis committing a career-high five turnovers, and that New York registered season lows in both assists (11) and turnovers forced (six), the Celtics could have easily embarrassed the Knicks.
Hornacek and Porzingis had different outlooks on being able to almost pull out a win despite those results.
“Not really,” Hornacek said, on whether any positives could be drawn in that regard. “These guys are veteran guys. A loss is a loss. There is no positive with that. We turned the ball over too many times. We didn’t create enough turnovers, and sometimes that’s your [level of] activity. I thought [the Celtics] got the hustle plays, especially in the first half, maybe in the first 2½ quarters. We got better at that from [then] on, but to beat them, you have to do it for 48 minutes.”
Parting slightly with that view, Porzingis said, “Especially in the second half, the effort was there. We were playing for each other, we were going hard… that’s how we were able to, at the end, get on the big run.”
Likewise, a bit more optimistic than Hornacek, Anthony said, “It was a tough loss. We competed, we made it a game, we had an opportunity to win the game.”
Offensively, the Knicks’ assist total — a half-dozen fewer than their previous season-low of 17, on opening night in Cleveland — wasn’t much of a concern to New York (even though the Knicks had just eight assists on their first 36 field goals, four games after New York, in a road loss, allowed the league’s best passing team Golden State, to record an assist on each of its first 36 baskets).
Rather, the Knicks credited Boston’s style of defense and staying with what they felt was the best plan of attack.
“They’re good at their defense,” Hornacek said of the Celtics. “They get after it, so you have to make quick decisions… the ball movement at times wasn’t good, but some of that is to their credit, denying swing passes against us.”
Porzingis added, “I think that’s just the type of basketball we play. We’re not a team that gets the most assists. A lot of it is iso for guys, and guys making 1-on-1 plays for themselves or for others, but I’m not really worried about that too much. There are situations where we can give that extra pass, but that wasn’t why we lost.”
Nor was Porzingis disturbed about committing his most turnovers of the season.
“I’m not really worried about that either,” he said.
Sometimes criticized as the Knicks’ primary ball stopper, Anthony defiantly said that he, Rose and Porzingis have to often stick with their isolation matchups when presented.
“You’ve got to stay with it,” he said. “If something is working, you don’t want to go away from that.
“Against us, [the Celtics] don’t help too much. They rely on individual defenders to make plays and stop the ball, and if we feel like we have an opportunity to take advantage of that, we’ll do that. Today, we felt that way.
“I didn’t see any issue with the ball movement. I don’t think that was a big issue today… I don’t think us having 11 assists was any indication of the way we played or the reason why we lost the game.”
On the surface, that might sound frustrating to some Knicks fans, especially the ones who have sometimes groaned this year when Anthony in particular has held the ball for longer than they’d like, in favor of making sure there’s crisp ball movement with all involved.
Hornacek also hopes for the same despite admitting that New York has players (like Anthony, Rose and Porzingis) who are very capable in isolation sets.
“We do have guys that can do it, but we like to get the ball moving a little more,” Hornacek said.
That slight admission aside, Hornacek, Anthony and Porzingis weren’t wrong for not being overly troubled with how the offense is being run.
Not when despite a season-worst output in assists, the Knicks (who rank 11th in the NBA in scoring) still put up 66-second-half points and matched their third-highest point total of the year on respectable 47.1 percent shooting, while solving another frequent problem this season — that of letting opponents get to the foul line more than them, even at home (New York made 24 of 27 free throws to Boston’s 15 in 20 attempts).
Instead, the biggest problems were at the other end of the floor, with communication issues mentioned as a common theme.
“The game was all defense, the way I look at it,” Rose said. “We let them get to spots [on the floor] where in [our] game plan, we [wanted] to stop them, and we didn’t communicate well.”
Porzingis added, “[The Celtics] were getting to the basket, we were coming in, and they were kicking out and getting good looks, and knocking down 3s. We’ve got to get a little better at communicating on defense, when we want to switch [or not].”
It was those difficulties which caused the Knicks to expend more energy than they could afford to pull out the win.
“We just couldn’t finish it at the end [of the game], but it’s not only the end part, it’s throughout the whole game,” Porzingis said. “We can get better… we could have played much better in a lot of situations that could have saved us energy at the end.”
Regarding the Celtics’ game-turning 3-point barrage, Anthony said, “Off [our] turnovers, [there were some] miscommunications on the defensive end. In that second quarter, turnovers led to 3s. Other than that, we kind of fought our way back and made it a game.”
An admirable late effort, for sure. But until the Knicks can learn to consistently move the ball better at certain times, and more importantly, communicate better and work together as a unit defensively on a more frequent basis, they’ll continue to come up just short against teams like the Celtics and prevent themselves from joining the upper ranks of the Eastern Conference by the end of the year.