The Cereal Bowl: Knicks 89, Celtics 86
Prologue: In Which Our Hero Suffers an Affront to His Honor and the Surreal becomes Commonplace
So it’s January 7th and you’re sitting in your living room waiting for the Knicks/Celtics game to start and all of a sudden tires screech and a horn honks and you step outside and there’s Doc Brown in the DeLorean and he’s telling you that you have to go back…back to the future. Apparently something about a Notre Dame linebacker and a Twitter account and a presidential inauguration and a singer and a scandal and it doesn’t make a lot of sense but he’s Doc Brown and this has always kind of been a dream of yours so you hop in the car and you fast forward a couple weeks and you tell Ms. Knowles to just do it live (she’ll thank you) and tell Jeremy Schaap that most good journalism doesn’t occur on the side of a highway at 1 AM and decide this not-so-distant future suits you just fine so you’ll hang out. You check the NBA schedule and hey, whaddya know, Knicks/Celtics in a couple days! Just like the game you had been getting ready to watch! So you trek up to Boston and scalp a ticket and as you’re entering the arena you see a security guard pat down a Celtics fan, notice some sort of contraband, and gruffly inform its bearer that he is not permitted to enter the arena unless he forfeits the object. Intrigued, you crane your head to see what all the fuss is about and discover that the confiscated item is, quite unmistakably, a Value Size box of General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios.
You take a moment to appreciate what a batshit insane few weeks you’ve missed.
Had you waited just a few more hours before hopping in the DeLorean, you would have learned that Kevin Garnett – a Celtic who was already a few hundred leagues on the wrong side of insufferable — implied, or maybe intimated, that he had conducted sufficient field research to conclude that Carmelo Anthony’s wife, LaLa Vasquez, would not look at all out of place with a picture of a cartoon bee and a heart-shaped “Will Lower Cholesterol” insignia stamped on her undergarments, if you catch my drift.* Carmelo chose to interpret this as an insult rather than a compliment — understandable, IMO — and waited for Garnett near Boston’s team bus either to talk to him or to beat the living crap out of him but these are high-net-worth individuals so no less than 29 people were between the two players at any point and the situation was diffused without further incident. Carmelo served a one-game suspension for forgetting where he parked his car (or a failed attempt at assault, your call), KG’s reputation as a “line-crosser” burned itself a little deeper into our collective psyche, and calendars were marked for the rematch. Which brings us to today.
Part the First: In Which Odds are Stacked against Our Band of Adventurers
If revenge is indeed a dish best served cold (like, say, leftover chicken) it stands to reason that it should have been served hot previously, preferably recently enough to preclude spoiling. In the case of Melo and the Knicks, tonight’s task entailed the consumption of a dish that had been sitting in the back of the middle shelf of the fridge since November of 2006 when Steve Francis and Eddy Curry led the Knicks to a 101-77 win over the Celtics in Boston.
13 times since that evening had the Knicks gone to Boston and 13 straight times had they come home with a loss to show for their troubles. And though the C’s entered this one having dropped four straight, as long as the scoresheet was populated by the names Pierce and Garnett and Rondo (the latter set to be guarded by former Harry Gallatin teammate Jason Kidd, no less!), memories weighed heavier than analysis and pits in many stomachs throughout Knickendom consumed much of the optimism and desire that typically characterizes a showdown with a hated rival who had only recently raised the stakes from “simmering disdain” to “deeply personal fist-through-the-wall rage.”
89% of the money in Vegas was placed on the Knicks minus 1.5. I read this and threw up a little in my mouth.
Part the Second: In Which It Seems the Moment May Overwhelm Our Hero
We all have our ways of coping with anxiety, frustration, anger, and pressure. We punch pillows. We snap at our pets. We overcompensate awkwardly.
Carmelo Anthony takes long jumpers. And so it was tonight when he came out with successive misses from mid-range, converted a layup, and then fouled Brandon Bass and coughed the ball up on a bad pass on successive possessions. All of this and a pair of rebounds to boot inside the games first 200 seconds. Active, yes; precise, not so much; his wheels spinning a mile a minute but his transmission stuck in second gear.
His team took cues from its centerpiece, resulting in 12 minutes of the kind of offense you would expect if the players had watched the TNT pregame show together and each taken a long pull of Red Bull every time EJ, Kenny, and the gang referred to an All-Star selection as a “travesty.” Hot potato shooting, seemingly random passing, little off-ball movement, few attempts to force defensive adjustments through penetration.
It was bad, but the effort on the boards was outstanding and the Celtics played just as tight and the Knicks actually carried a lead into the quarter’s last 90 seconds before a particularly uninspired game of Bad Cop / Bad Cop (with Melo and JR in the two lead roles) wasted the final three possessions and handed the Celtics easy points on the way back. Still, even down by 4, the Knicks had weathered the Boston crowd’s initial volley, felt out a particularly hardassed officiating team, and lived to fight on.
Part the Third: In Which the Ranks of the Overlooked and the Forgotten Come to Our Hero’s Aid
It is possible — perhaps not likely but certainly possible — that this season’s most important three minutes to date occurred at the outset of the second quarter of tonight’s game. I think most of us agree that Felton/Kidd/Melo/Chandler and someone else (here we have some differences of opinion but let’s put these aside for a moment) represent the Knicks best lineup, the one that should start games and probably close them. But from 12:00 to 8:55 of the second quarter tonight, the Knicks may finally have found their second unit.
Out of the break, Woodson sent Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Steve Novak, and Amare Stoudemire onto the court. He instructed them to play zone defense. He likely instructed them very little on offense — they were a distributor, a scoring wing, a lockdown defender, a sniper, and an athletic big with some range on his jumper; some gameplans write themselves. The defensive alignment flummoxed Boston, which settled for two long three-point attempts by Jason Terry and missed a couple of layups — one attempted by Jared Sullinger and returned with some distaste by a positively rejuvenated (15 & 9 with 2 blocks, a team best +11) Stoudemire, in the midst of his best half in at least a year, maybe two. The group sprinted out to an 11-2 run with Novak spacing the floor and everyone else contributing at least one bucket.
Though the Knicks would give the lead back several more times before the night was through, it did seem that those few minutes calmed them, reminded them that cohesiveness and balance had a better hope of carrying the day than hastiness and individualism. Shumpert hit some threes (as important a variable as any to the team’s fate in the coming months), Melo and Amare co-piloted the offense as well as they ever have (oh, yeah, except for this variable. This one is bigger), and the Knicks took a 50-48 lead to the half.
Part the Fourth: In Which Our Hero Claims that which is His
Tonight’s box score indicates that Jason Kidd made two three pointers. This has caused me to edit the following sentence thusly:
“Jason Kidd hit
about 14 exactly 2 HUGE three pointers tonight.”
The first of the two came at the beginning of the first quarter, brought the Knicks their first three points and came on the heels of three utterly inept offensive possessions. The latter came at a similar juncture near the start of the third quarter, breaking a 7-2 Celtics run to open the second half and re-tying the game after Carmelo’s 0/3 start to the quarter had helped cough up the Knicks’ halftime lead.
From there, Carmelo pretty much took over. You know that whole “The Knicks should really run more pick-and-roll with Melo on the ball and Chandler as the screener” thing that plenty of us smart folks have been saying all year? Well, they tried it on four straight sets, all of which the Celtics countered by switching Jared (!) Sullinger (!!) onto Carmelo and which ended, respectively, layup, layup, non-shooting foul, Melo pull-up 26-foot three-point miss.* Sullinger awoke from his nightmare but things kept going the Knicks’ way, with Tyson Chandler volleyball-spiking a Prigioni alley into the net for his first points of the game, somehow avoiding an injury ranging from “sprained wrist” to “gruesome death” when he crashed to the parquet, and making the free throw (a feat that would have been considerably more difficult had he perished moments prior) to boot. Melo hit a pull-up. Chandler got smacked in mid-oop by Jeff Green and made his free throws. The Knicks led by 6 after three. They looked to be in total control.
*Spot the one that doesn’t belong!
Enter JR Smith.
Part the Fifth: In Which Sancho Panza nearly Crashes the Team Bus right into the Damn Windmill
It has been my general impression since JR Smith’s arrival last season that he largely looks to Melo for inspiration. It makes sense: he’s played off of him in two cities and the two have vaguely similar offensive skillsets though Melo’s is clearly superior. This year, the dynamic has brought more good than bad — JR has played smarter and more in control, staying in line until needed and exhibiting a fearless desire to come through in big spots when asked. Despite shooting numbers that are undeniably in decline in recent weeks, his acceptance of his place on the team has been a true pleasure to watch.
It was not on display tonight.
After a 1 for 9 showing in the game’s opening half, Smith stood to the side in the third, attempting nary a shot as cooler heads and steadier (on this night) hands built a semi-comfortable Knick lead, seized unmistakable control of the night’s affair, and neutralized a once-frenzied Boston crowd. But the lid could only stay on so long.
50 seconds into the fourth quarter, Smith missed a three.
52 seconds later, he missed another.
At 9:15 he hacked a cutting Rondo. At 7:33 he was whistled for a defensive 3 seconds violation.* At 7:18 he missed a long two.
*Note the juxtaposition: a wing first fouling a point guard and then conceding a technical free throw (gloriously clanked by Paul Pierce, by the by) for idling too long in the key. “Defensive versatility” would, I suppose, be a euphemism. “WTF” would be the more apt description.
For a while, Melo and friends kept things stable but eventually all aside from JR stopped, his teammates enraptured by the siren song of his bravado, sucked into his vortex of heave. A blind-squirrel-finds-acorn make on a mid-ranger before the next two rimmed out, leaving him at 2 for 15 on the night. And all the while the lead narrowed. 80-70. 82-76. 84-80.
Then at last, after a pair of Rondo free throws with 2:58 on the clock, 86-84.
We had seen this movie before. The ending was as sad as it was immutable. We held our loved ones close as Pierce readied his step-back jumper. Celtics’ fans leaned in, smelling blood. Kidd missed a three. Amare hustled to the rebound but couldn’t control it. The Celtics hurried the ball up court with 2:30 to play and the look of the executioner in their eyes.
Part the Sixth: In Which Hope
Rondo had an angle. It was there only briefly and Chandler may have been able to cut it off, but for a fleeting moment before the Knicks defense set itself there was a path from Rondo to the rim at the end of which may have resided a game-tying layup or a shooting foul. Wizard that he can at times be, the Celtics point guard is notoriously pass-happy and, though he scored 23 points in a triple-double tonight, one may wonder at his potential for greater devastation were he just that much more willing to take points when he sees them.* Here, he pulled the ball back and the Celtics set up their half-court offense.
*Tonight’s most notable example of this came on a third-quarter 2-on-1 break that looked certain to end in an easy Rondo lay-in before he hesitated and elected to leave an alley-oop lob for an oncoming Brandon Bass. JR Smith sniffed the maneuver out and slapped the ball to a waiting Carmelo Anthony at halfcourt who worked it ahead to Stoudemire for a slick finish in the paint. A four-point swing that could have meant everything on this night.
At 2:25, Rondo lobs the ball to Paul Pierce 18 feet out on the left wing. Pierce backs down Jason Kidd (forced into the mismatch by the Knicks hurried scramble to get back on defense), draws help from JR Smith, and dumps it back up top to Rondo who finds Avery Bradley in the right corner. At this point, the Celtics motion has left the Knicks so disorganized that Bradley is left one-on-one with Stoudemire and takes him baseline. Amare cuts his path to the rim off nicely, Garnett mugs would-be-helper Tyson Chandler, and Bradley elects (smartly) to reset the play again with 8 to shoot. He hits Pierce up top and (again, smartly) makes a beeline for the left corner. Stoudemire predictably doesn’t follow. Pierce shakes Kidd with a ball fake and takes two steps to the top of the key, ready to lower the boom that we all knew was coming with a game-tying jumper. JR Smith, forced to pick between guarding three Celtics, closes out on Pierce.
Pierce sees Smith coming and realizes that this means Ray Allen is wide open in the corner. He kicks the ball out to Allen, who buries the corner three and puts the Celtics on top 87-86.
Except for one thing. It’s not Allen. It’s the aforementioned Avery Bradley. And, you’re not going to believe this but stay with me here, he MISSES. A Celtic, in Boston, with 2 minutes left and a chance to complete a comeback and force a Knick timeout so the crowd can go bonkers for 2 minutes while they sing Sweet Caroline or whatever annoying tradition they have in this arena. And he MISSES the open shot.
I can’t speak for you but, for me, this was the moment when the first crack showed itself. When the first bud of spring stuck its head up through the snow. When we saw that the emperor, though not totally naked, was wearing some clothes that looked like they might be going a little bit out of style. I wish I had the video of the play (if you have access to it and want to post it in the comments I’ll drop it in here and credit you happily) but if you can get it on your TiVo or wherever, freeze it when Bradley is in mid-air. Watch every Celtics fan in the picture. Watch every Knicks fan in the picture. They’ve ALL seen this movie before. Except it’s not the same movie and it doesn’t have the same actors and the shot hits back iron and Chandler controls the rebound and now it’s a basketball game with two minutes left on the clock and two teams who have learned that the normal rules have been suspended and whoever can get the best of the last few possessions is going to win.
Part the Seventh: In Which Redemption and Joy
On the ensuing possession, Carmelo picks up a loose-ball foul (his fourth). Boston comes back the other way, Rondo sucks all the Knick help into the paint and kicks to Garnett for an open 15-footer. It misses. Rules suspended, indeed. The Knicks walk the ball up court and have an utterly unimpressive offensive possession that starts with an iso-Melo that is easily shut down by Jeff Green and a doubling Rondo. With 8 to shoot, Anthony realizes it ain’t happening and he sends it up top to Kidd who looks at it like its a pair of socks that just came out of the biggest box under the Christmas tree. He quickly sends it to JR Smith on the right wing.
And JR Smith, 2 for 15 as he catches it, calmly bangs home a 24-foot three pointer right in Paul Pierce’s mug. He raises a hand over his head. Doc Rivers calls timeout. TD Banknorth Garden is reduced to a whisper. Somewhere, John Starks nods resolutely, a single tear rolling down his cheek. “Be you, JR” he says. “Be you.”
Then, just because, JR deflects a pass off of Pierce and out of bounds on the ensuing possession. Melo misses. Rondo makes (89-86). Kidd misses. 13 seconds to play. Celtics in-bounding in the frontcourt. Lob to Garnett. Hand-off to Rondo. Pierce pops out. Rondo rushes the pass. Pierce bobbles and, sensing his moment, Earl Joseph Smith sticks his hand in, bothers the ball, forces Pierce to lunge and deflect the ball out of bounds, completing the greatest 3-for-16 game in NBA history. It was as well as I’ve ever seen the Knicks defend a late-game inbounds play and they did it in Boston, to Paul Pierce, with stakes no less than a game inflated by hype and passion into something more than just one game. I could talk about Anthony defending his pride, about the Knicks breaking a jinx that had hung over their heads for far too long, about the potential that this was, at last, the changing of the guard moment in the Atlantic Division.
I could talk about any of those things. But I’ve talked enough. And I’d rather show you the face that the Knicks made Paul Pierce make at the end of the night, the face that made tonight different from any other night the Knicks have spent in Boston for the better part of a decade:
All those years of Catholic School, I heard about the Promised Land. A place called the “Land of Milk and Honey.” I should’ve guessed what made the milk taste that way.