Disclaimer: as this was written for the Daily Dime and in a fog of moderate-to-severe anger (made all the more intense by a round of antibiotics which preclude me from drinking), please excuse both the lack of statistics and the overly pessimistic tone of this screed.
2010 was supposed to be a year of changing fortunes for the New York Knicks. And in a few meaningful ways, it has been. Playoff bound for the first time in seven years and with a certifiable Big Three to call their own, the Knicks seem to have embraced the new decade – like the fans their new-look squad – while distancing themselves from the relative misery and disappointment of the one just past.
But when it comes to the Boston Celtics, Monday night’s 96-86 humiliating home meltdown was very much the same old story.
The Celtics outscored the Bockers 33-17 in a final frame which saw both Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony all but vanish. Boston’s Big Three of Pierce, Allen and Garnett, meanwhile, tallied 25 of their team’s fourth quarter points, as the Celtics seemed to beat the Knicks to every loose ball and critical rebound.
To say the game was a slugfest would be an understatement: both Ray Allen and Carmelo Anthony found themselves on the receiving end of errant elbows that drew literal streams of blood.
The fact that it was Melo who inadvertently caught Allen on the top of the head in the 2nd quarter – only to get the same from Rajon Rondo at midcourt halfway through the 4th – imparted a karmic irony that was lost on no one, as barbs, barks and elbows were traded as much as butterfly band-aids in a truly heated second half.
The loss put the Knicks at .500 for the first time since February 11th, a 113-96 home drubbing by the Lakers. At that point in the season, many blamed the Knicks’ woes on the incessant Carmelo Anthony trade talks and the toll it was taking on team chemistry and morale. Now, with New York having dropped 6 of their last 7 and 9 of 16 since the Anthony trade, chemistry and morale are again at the heart of the conversation.
Refreshingly, both seemed intact early, as solid ball movement and the efficient shooting of Anthony (15 first half points on 7 of 12 shooting) and Stoudemire (11 points on 5-8 shooting) – combined with a shockingly staunch stretch of D that included a span of 270 seconds where the Celtics failed to score – helped put the Knicks up 14 at the break.
After cutting the Knick lead to 6 entering the fourth, Boston’s lockdown defense and patient ball movement began to pay dividends. With Stoudemire and Anthony both looking lost and unsure, the Knicks offense crumbled steadily, mustering a measly 4 points in the final 7:26, and no points in the final 3:28.
Using the frenzied Garden chants as fuel down the stretch, the Celtics closed the game with a playoff-level intensity unbecoming their typical March malaise. What was a still a two-point game with 2:34 quickly mushroomed to 6, then 8, then 10, in a span which saw Carmelo Anthony attempt exactly zero shots and Stoudemire’s lone 15-foot jumper clang errant.
All three Knicks-Celtics games have had a palpable playoff feel. But as the season nears the finish line, the likelihood of the first Boston-New York series since 1990 is becoming more of a possibility. The surging Sixers seem poised to hold on to the sixth seed – if not steal the 5th spot from the stumbling Hawks – and an equally favorable home stretch makes the Bulls’ chances of landing the top seed even more likely. The Magic, meanwhile, will likely retain the 4th seed, which they’ve held for most of the year.
That leaves the enigmatic Heat, who may wish to stand pat at #3 – where they’d face a Philadelphia team they have yet to lose to – rather than risk a run-in with the Knicks, who seem to have their number of late.
The Knicks and Celtics will meet one more time in Boston on April 13th, the last game of the regular season for both squads.
The way it’s shaping up now, it could be the Knicks’ final pre-playoff chance to exorcise their many demons in what will certainly have the look and feel of a de facto Game 1. Tonight they were all on display, with rebounding (44-38), turnovers (13-8), and interior defense (44 points in the paint to 28) all once again finding the Knicks holding the short end of the stat stick.
But one demon more than any other will doubtless loom larger and louder: that of the fourth quarter collapse. Having been outscored by a combined 25 in the last two final frames against their old nemesis, Amare, Melo and the rest of the Knicks should by then know better than anyone the importance of execution and smart play when it counts.
If they don’t, the Celtics themselves would certainly love nothing better than to teach them again.