Breathe, breathe, breathe…. Okay. Excuse my blood pressure, still soaring to Everest-like peaks after that one. On a night when the Boston Celtics would be without their best player, Rajon Rondo – serving a one-game suspension for bumping a referee – all of the Knicks-Celtics rivalry talk seemed a little forced. After all, despite numerous close games in the past, the Knicks have never been on the Celtics’ level in previous years, and when the Knicks are finally an elite team this season, the Celtics have been struggling. However, the difference in the standings had no effect on the intensity of this one. An up-and-down, back-and-forth affair led to a battle of offense and defense, while both teams got heated, scratching at each other’s throats. Ultimately, it was the poise of the Celtics, the cold shooting of Carmelo Anthony, and a few daggers delivered by Paul Pierce that gave the Celtics the win.
The game opened up with some sloppy execution by both teams. The Knicks employed their latest ‘big’ starting lineup with Marcus Camby at the four, while the Celtics remained relatively small with Kevin Garnett at center and Brandon Bass at power forward. However, size differences
aside, both teams switched rapidly on defense, casting small guys on big guys and big guys on little guys, creating some sloppy execution and offensive and defensive befuddlement. After some brief hesitancy in the early going, the Knicks got the ball rolling on offense, feeding Chandler for some easy baskets. When Carmelo Anthony was forced to the bench with two early fouls, J.R. Smith checked in and picked up the load.
Smith, who’s been nothing short of excellent in recent weeks, continued his stellar play. Within moments of Smith entering the game, the Knicks forced a shot clock violation, Smith canned a three-pointer, the Knicks forced another miss. On the ensuing possession, Smith found Chandler in the pick-and-roll, and hit him with a pretty bounce pass which led to a Chandler pick-and-roll. The Knicks’ momentum continued with Amar’e Stoudemire checking into the game early, getting to the free throw line, and even knocking down an elbow jumper off of a curl play. Early, it seemed the Knicks were on their way to blowing out the Celtics as they led 18-8.
But, in a trend that would continue nightly, the Knicks closed the quarter poorly. After reaching the 18-point mark with 5:14 remaining, the Knicks scored just three points the rest of the quarter. The Celtics, meanwhile, feasted off defensive rebounds and turnovers, creating opportunities for themselves on a bevy of layups, free throws, and a quarter-sealing three-pointer. After one, the Celtics led 22-21.
The second quarter was a reversal of execution for both teams. While the first quarter featured some capable defense, the respective offenses were somewhat lacking. In the second quarter, however, the Knicks put up 35 points while the Celtics tossed in 31 of their own. Tied at 26 with 9 minutes to go, both teams lit the Bunsen burners. After the Celtics cashed in some easy baskets from Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa and Pablo Prigioni drove the lane for a layup, it became a duel of Paul Pierce vs. the Knicks’ outside attack.
Over the course of five minutes, the Knicks knocked down six three-pointers, the contributions coming from Anthony, Smith, Jason Kidd, and Ronnie Brewer. However, while the Knicks rallied off bombs from beyond the arc, the Celtics answered mostly by way of Paul Pierce who was splashing all night long.
Once again, after a mini eruption from downtown that put the Knicks up 50-41, the Celtics came back. While the Knicks once again floundered on offense in the waning minutes of the half, Boston fought back. A pair of three-pointers from Pierce and Green closed the lead, and Avery Bradley banked in a running hook shot at the buzzer to bring the Celtics within three, down 53-56 to the Knicks at halftime. However, the momentum and the lingering Celtics cast a foreboding vibe heading into the second half.
The shadow of doubt hanging over the Knicks regarding their ability to put away these pesky Celtics proved valid. The third quarter ranks as one of the most futile quarters we’ve seen from the Knicks this season. 16 points on 35% with five turnovers is no way to play a quarter in a game you hope to win, let alone put away a team like the Celtics.
While the Knicks misfired shot after shot (the one positive being that they rebounded the ball, especially on offense, very well), the Celtics more or less just chugged along. Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett, and Jeff Green buoyed the Celtics offense on a variety of different looks from around the floor, attacking the mismatches (Steve Novak was a primary target of the Celtics’ attack) and taking advantage of the Knicks’ switch-heavy defense. If the Knicks weren’t allowing the Celtics to post up smaller players, or let their guards work off the dribble against the Knicks’ big men, then the Knicks were shooting themselves in the foot. Carmelo Anthony treated Jeff Green like LeBron James all over the court, hounding him needlessly, and eventually, foolishly, picking up his fourth foul and relegating him to the bench.
However, for all of the Knicks’ misery in the quarter, they fought decently enough and were only down 76-72 entering the pivotal fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter is one that split the Knicks’ fan base in half tonight. To begin, the officiating was bad all night. The Celtics were tagged for fouls with minimal contact while the Knicks weren’t receiving calls despite the Celtics’ physical play. Tempers flared early on.
However, it was the Knicks’ incessant switching on defense that got them into trouble. One matchup in particular. The Celtics worked Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett pick-and-rolls until their faces were blue, and they got what they wanted. Carmelo Anthony ducked under screens and switched onto Kevin Garnett, while Chandler was left to defend Pierce. More often than not, KG and ‘Melo jostled – nay, wrestled – nay, brawled – for position on the block, clobbering each other with little official interference. They exchanged words all night, but one play in particular set Anthony off as Garnett threw a subtle elbow into Anthony’s back after a Celtics turnover. Garnett back-pedaled while Anthony chased him down, barking in KG’s face, inching closer and closer until the referees broke it up and gave them double technicals.
However, the bickering and wrestling continued as Anthony continually switched onto Garnett, often fouling him, or letting Pierce work on Chandler or whoever else rotated to help. Time and time again, the Celtics just found the basket either by exploiting mismatches or working the ball around until somebody got the shot they wanted. Worse, though, was that Anthony’s spat with Garnett sent him into an ill-advised, ill-fated hero mode. Anthony launched three-pointer after three-pointer, ignored teammates on several possessions fruitlessly laboring against the Celtics’ clamping defense and forcing shots that he just wasn’t hitting tonight.
The Knicks attempted to bail themselves out a few times (Anthony did nail a big three-pointer after the incident with Garnett) with three-pointers from Smith and Kidd, a fastbreak layup from Kidd, and some free throws, but it wasn’t enough. On yet another switch on the Celtics’ 3-5 pick-and-roll, Pierce lured Chandler into backing up, then nailed a step-back jumper over Chandler’s out-stretched hand that boosted the Celtics’ lead to six with 45 seconds remaining. It was the dagger.
- Carmelo Anthony’s fourth quarter was the point of dispute of the game. On one hand, it was great to see that competitive fire from Anthony – he got in the opponents face, stood up to one of the the dirtiest players in the NBA, defended his team and his home court. Great. For me, the line Anthony crossed, however, was in trying to prove a point. Even before the double technicals were assessed, Anthony had been misfiring from the field woefully, in route to a 6-26 shooting night. And as many have pointed out, Anthony is allowed a bad game, following his previous 33 games of almost pure dominance and team-carrying on offense. However, what shouldn’t be allowed was the way Anthony hijacked the offense, overlooking Smith and Kidd who’d been having good shooting nights, passing up Chandler and Stoudemire who’d both been very efficient around the basket all night. Anthony was 2-10 in the fourth quarter, and most of his misses weren’t good ones. Love the competitive fire from Anthony, love the pride for his team, didn’t love the way it affected his offensive attack.
- The Knicks actually out-rebounded the Celtics 42-36 and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds along the way. Much of this was due to Tyson Chandler’s terrificness (why not?) on both ends of the floor. Chandler generally anchored the Knicks defense well and defended his switches with gusto. On offense, he was tidy as usual, cruising his way to 13 points on 4-6 shooting with 5-6 FTs. He also grabbed 17 rebounds. As for that Pierce dagger, shot right in Chandler’s face: Tyson defended as well as he could have. No qualms with Chandler’s near 41 minutes of excellency tonight.
- Amar’e Stoudemire played the entire fourth quarter and busted through his 20-minute cap on his way to a 28-minute stint. Stoudemire had a season-high 13 points on the same exact shooting line as Chandler, above. On offense, Stoudemire is beginning the look more comfortable finishing around the basket, and he gave us a brief 2010-flashback, with a face-up, blow-by drive on Garnett for a one-handed slam. Stoudemire’s defense looked focused and generally good for most of the night, though his mere two rebounds were frustrating as he often watched the ball in the air, flat-footed. Methinks Amar’e is still a bit afraid of the contact around the basket during the ball for the boards, and that may wear off with more playing time.
- J.R. Smith, though his shot selection was a bit questionable (and kinda momentum-killing in the fourth quarter), had another good game off the bench. 18 points on 7-18 shooting, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals. He shot the three-ball much better than in recent days, but he couldn’t get the ones the Knicks really needed to go down.
- Another J.R. note: not sure why the Knicks continually let Smith bring up the ball, even with Avery Bradley draped all over him. This led to a lot of near-8-second violations, some near-turnovers, and damned-from-the-onset offensive sets. Though Pablo Prigioni struggled equally as mightily to get the ball over halfcourt and into the hands of any teammates. This all happened primarily in the forgettable third quarter.
- Oh, just remembered! Apparently after the game, Anthony stormed off to the Celtics’ locker room, and there are reports that he was in a screaming match with an unnamed player (I can guess who), before a group of players from both teams had to be restrained and removed. All of the players and coaches have been ho-hum about it in postgame interviews, so the details are still vague. Let’s hope this doesn’t lead to any league-sanctioned punishment.
So, the Knicks lost a game by six points, despite their two leading scorers shooting a combined 13-44. That’s the good news. The Celtics do not really look like that great of a team; the Knicks played very poorly. However, this rivalry does seem kind of real these days, and the Celtics did not even have their starting point guard. Emotion controlled the game far too much for the Knicks for my liking, and it led to their ultimate demise.
The Knicks will have a practice day some time before they play Indiana on Thursday. That could be a big game.