For 38 1/2 minutes on Friday, the New York Knicks handcuffed and hamstrung a tired, old, injured and shorthanded Boston Celtics squad, holding them to 49 points on 30.6 percent shooting and leading by 26 points with 9 1/2 minutes to go.
Naturally, the Celtics had the Knicks right where they wanted them.
Over the next six minutes, Boston ripped off a 26-4 run — remember, Boston scored 27 points in the first half of Game 6 — behind out-of-nowhere-furious play from Jeff Green (a Boston-high 21 in the game) and Avery Bradley (all 10 of his points, all three of his steals), two young guns unwilling to let the Celtics, and their veterans, go out without one last run.
That run, however, would bring Boston no closer than four points. No matter how hard the Knicks tried to lose at the TD Garden on Friday night — and boy, oh boy, did they try, posting six turnovers that led to 15 Celtics points and shooting 1 for 9 from the floor (mostly on pound-the-rock isolations by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith) in that six-minute stretch — they'd built too big a cushion and forced the Celtics to expend too much energy deflating it.
An Anthony pull-up with 3:10 left pushed the lead back to six. A top-of-the-key Anthony 3-pointer at the 1:43 mark off a pick-and-roll action with Raymond Felton extended it to nine. An Anthony block of a Paul Pierce layup snuffed out the Celtics' last offensive chance, and a Smith driving and-one layup restored the lead to double digits with less than 90 seconds remaining.
In spite of one last Celtics stand — and, really, in spite of themselves — the Knicks moved on to the Eastern Conference semifinals on Friday, beating Boston 88-80 to notch a 4-2 win of their best-of-seven series. Anthony led the Knicks with 21 points (albeit on 7 for 23 shooting), seven rebounds and five assists in 40 minutes. His late 3-pointer was his first made long ball since the 3:32 mark of the fourth quarter in Game 3; he had missed his previous 17.
But while Anthony was the Knicks' top scorer, New York's best player on Friday was sophomore guard Iman Shumpert. One year and one week after suffering a torn left ACL in Game 1 of the Knicks' 2011-12 first-round series against the Miami Heat, Shumpert scored 17 points on 6 for 9 shooting, drained all three of his 3-point tries, grabbed six rebounds, added two steals and a block, made multiple Celtics wings (Pierce, Green, Jason Terry) miserable on the defensive end and, in the latter stages of the game, seemed like the only Knick confident enough to step into and knock down shots when it counted. Toward the end of this series, the 22-year-old swingman became a legitimate weapon for Mike Woodson, and on Friday, he was arguably the most integral factor in New York's series-clinching victory.
The most integral factor, that is, beyond Boston's horrendously anemic early-game offense. Kevin Garnett opened the game 3 for 3 from the floor; all other Celtics combined to shoot 1 for 13 in the first quarter, allowing the Knicks to carve out a 21-5 lead after the first eight minutes and digging themselves a hole from which they'd spend the entire remainder of the game attempting to emerge.
Pierce had dead legs from the start that persisted throughout, as the Celtics captain finished with 14 points on 4 for 18 shooting (including a 1 for 9 mark from the 3-point line) and matched his five assists with five turnovers in 43 1/2 minutes in what could have been the swan song for Pierce's 15-year career in Boston ends — his contract has a team option for next season, and the Celtics can pay him $5 million to cut ties with him if they so choose. The Knicks were taking free throws when Boston coach Doc Rivers checked Pierce out of the game with 27 seconds remaining; Celtics fans didn't seem to recognize the moment, the chance that they'd just watched the final game for one of the greatest players in franchise history. It was sad, although in some respects oddly appropriate, considering nobody — not even Celtics fans — every fully seems to appreciate just how remarkable, historic and legendary a performer Paul Pierce has been in kelly green.
The Garden faithful did, however, rise for a standing ovation when Garnett checked out nine seconds later. The 37-year-old center was all Rivers could rely on in the early going, and was again the best frontcourt player in the series for much of this game, finishing with 15 points on 7 for 10 shooting, 10 rebounds and three assists in 41 minutes; like Pierce, this could be his last run with the Celtics, as he has discussed possibly retiring after the season. He's clearly still one of the league's few major defensive game-changers, but the futures of Rivers and Pierce will likely weigh on his own decision.
Garnett did have five costly turnovers, though, a symptom of the Celtics' larger disease on the evening, and was unable to lock down the defensive glass on Friday as he had in the prior three games, allowing the Knicks — and, most notably, center Tyson Chandler — to feast on the offensive glass, granting New York extra bailout possessions when their offense went stagnant. This was especially critical in the fourth quarter, when Chandler logged four offensive boards; though none led directly to a Knicks basket, all resulted in more clock being eaten in a game — and, really, a series — where the Celtics just seemed out of time.
Felton wasn't the scoring threat he'd been earlier in the series (11 points on 14 shots), Smith again reverted to his maddening stepback game (13 points on 13 shots), Jason Kidd went scoreless for the fourth straight game and Woodson again seemed to make rotational decisions (especially in that fourth quarter) at random and with disregard for situation and score. And yet, the Knicks won. They won the regular-season series with the Celtics, took the Atlantic Division title away from the Celtics and, now, eliminated the Celtics from the postseason, avenging their own 2010-11 first-round exit at the hands of the Celtics.
Next up for the Knicks: The Indiana Pacers, who dispatched the Atlanta Hawks earlier Friday, in the second round. What comes next for the Celtics remains to be seen, but in those last 9 1/2 minutes on Friday night, they reminded us — without Rajon Rondo, without Ray Allen, without the benefit of youth or superior talent — they reminded us why the Celtics have been so blasted hard to kill these past few years. If this is the end, it was one hell of a death rattle.