Being down 3-0 in a best of seven playoff series doesn’t create too many positive things for a basketball team. What it can do, however, is instill fight, will, belief, hope, and an underdog mentality. Today the Knicks lost; their season crashing to the floor while extending what feels like an eternal winless playoff streak. Their largest deficit in today’s particular game was 23 points and the team had every reason to pack it in and wait until next year as they stared a long summer square in the face: Their starting point guard was in a suit, their largest free agent acquisition in franchise history was limited by back problems, and their starting shooting guard was in the final stages of his slow transformation from Rookie of the Year candidate to Casper the friendly ghost. But the Knicks didn’t give up. They fought back. They had belief and hope and a will to win. Unfortunately, their opponent, the Boston Celtics, had all those things coupled with more talent, chemistry, and experience. In the end, Kevin Garnett’s 26 points, Rajon Rondo’s 12 assists, and the Celtics 50% shooting from the field was just too much to overcome—it would be for most teams.
Apart from Amar’e Stoudemire picking up his first foul 12 seconds into the game, this one started off in a direct contrast to Game 3’s laugher on Friday night. The Knicks were offensively on point, they kept the crowd involved, and defensively they looked to be right back to the form they showed in the series’ first two games, especially the front line. Turiaf and Stoudemire were guarding the basket like two mother grizzlies protecting their cubs. The two of them were also active on the offensive glass with Stoudemire grabbing four in the first quarter alone. But as the quarter wore itself on and Carmelo began to get a little hot, no second man came to his aid on offense. Anthony was the only Knick to play the entire quarter, finishing with 15 points on just nine shots. The rest of New York combined for just eight points. Combine that with Toney Douglas’ stubborn insistence on guarding Rondo from behind the baseline photographers and the Knicks trailed by six after one quarter. All in all it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it wasn’t good, either. The Knicks squandered a great opportunity (most notably Amar’e’s 0-6 from the floor, one point performance) to burst out of the gate with a statement; instead they were placid. Nobody attacked on offense, and those who did couldn’t convert. Open shots were passed up by Douglas and Fields, planting seeds in D’Antoni’s mind regarding his delegation of minutes that would eventually sprout in the second half.
Before this series started, Stoudemire stated that he and Glen Davis were on different levels. While the validity of this statement can’t be disputed over the long haul of a basketball career, in the second quarter Davis flipped the script. With Carmelo on the bench to start, Boston sniffed blood and they attacked. Davis came in for Garnett and played out of his mind, knocking down jumper after jumper, grabbing rebound after rebound. With Rondo resting, the Celtics extended their lead to 17 as their defense snuffed out every flicker of offensive entitlement D’Antoni coached teams usually show. The Knicks were held to 24% shooting from the field in the half. They made two of 10 threes. Amar’e didn’t put the ball in the basket with a running clock until 36 seconds remained in the second quarter, yet he played more minutes than Anthony, who had 19 points at the half. Things looked dark and things looked bleak. To be fair—not even counting the injury as an excuse—Stoudemire’s offensive production seemed to be a direct reflection of the sub standard point guard play. Douglas was non-existent on the offensive end as he made one shot in eight attempts for a measly two points. Douglas couldn’t have distracted the Celtics concentrated defense if he lit himself on fire and bee-lined towards Jermaine O’Neal. He wasn’t a concern and that allowed Boston to collapse on Stoudemire anytime he put the ball on the floor. Amar’e wanted to go off, but Boston didn’t allow it as an option. Trailing by 17 at the half, 55-38, the Knicks would need a miracle to extend the series and head back to Boston. And it would have to come from an unlikely source.
With Shawne Williams replacing an injured Turiaf and Bill Walker taking over for an emotionally spent Landy Fields, the Knicks started the second half with two offensive minded bench players on the floor. They needed some sort of spark, most likely from downtown, and it was in those two that D’Antoni believed his team could claw its way back into contention. Much of the third quarter was a blase experience to those who witnessed Game 3. New York was dull on both ends and the deficit, which had been pushed to as high as 23, was teetering steadily around 20 points. Then the unthinkable happened. Boston’s disciplined defense allowed two straight Carmelo Anthony fast break dunks and a Roger Mason three-pointer to cut their lead to 12 with just over four minutes left. With the crowd involved for the first time since early April, the Knicks were able to keep the game within striking distance for a fourth quarter push. Anthony Carter had asserted himself in the game and was playing with confidence. When Shawne Williams knocked down a huge three with 40 seconds left in the third to make it a 10 point game, Madison Square Garden finally found itself playing host to dramatic playoff basketball.
The fourth quarter was all about Anthony Carter. He pressured Rajon Rondo up and down the court, got in the face of bigger guys like Jeff Green, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce when New York switched on pick and pops, ran the offense like John Stockton, and knocked down clutch basket after clutch basket. The fourth could have been special. Really special. The Knicks, led by their unlikely hero Anthony Carter, kept riding their third quarter comeback momentum like a 60 foot wave all the way to a four point shortage with seven minutes left in the game. But just as they began to rip a page from Portland’s book of wondrous bed time fables, the Celtics flipped their switch. While the Trailblazers had a three-time All-Star leading them to victory, New York was stuck with Anthony Carter. Carmelo Anthony was great through three and a half quarters, but the energy extolled seemed to take a lot out of him. As they’ve done all series long, Boston began to execute their sets to near perfection down the stretch as they upped their lead from four to 10 and then 13 with just a minute to play. The magic had finally run out. But the Knicks went down fighting, and it’s a hopeful yet incredibly painful sign as we look ahead to all the positive energy next season has in store.