After Game 2 of his New York Knicks' first-round matchup against the Boston Celtics, a game the Knicks lost 96-93 despite a remarkable effort on his part, Carmelo Anthony was adamant that this series isn't over — that while the Knicks find themselves in the unenviable position of being down two games to the defending Eastern Conference champions, the boys in blue are still in this thing.
"The Celtics didn't do anything special; they won two games on their home court," said Anthony, who came back from a disappointing Game 1 to turn in a virtuoso performance in the loss, scoring 42 points on 14-for-30 shooting, snaring 17 rebounds, dropping six dimes and blocking two shots. "Now it's our turn to do the same thing."
On one hand, that makes sense.
The old saw is that playoff series don't start until one team loses on its home floor, and New York has hung with Boston nearly every step of the way in these first two games, grinding it out through injuries, through stretches of poor shooting, through bad breaks and questionable calls. It would stand to reason that, given some home cooking to assuage role players' big-game jitters and maybe reverse polarity on some of those breaks and calls, the Knicks could get on the scoreboard and maybe even get level by week's end.
Then again, conventional wisdom can't account for opportunity slipping through your fingers two straight times, or for the odds piling up past the point where you can cover the bet — a point that may have come Tuesday night for the Knicks.
The old saw doesn't account for Amar'e Stoudemire missing the entire second half thanks to his first-ever bout with back spasms, an injury the star said he thinks he sustained while dunking in pre-game warmups. The pain locked him up to the point where he needed help getting his shoes on in the Knicks' locker room before the post-game press conference. While he's hopeful he'll be ready to play come Friday, his name's not etched in stone for Game 3 just yet.
It doesn't factor in a suited Chauncey Billups dragging his left leg around after a Game 1 knee sprain, forcing Mike D'Antoni to give Toney Douglas the keys to the offense, with predictably unpredictable results. Douglas missed 11 of 16 shots and delivered just two assists in 34 minutes, but he also grabbed seven rebounds, hit a big fourth-quarter 3-pointer that gave the Knicks an 81-80 lead and played like he wasn't scared of the moment. Still, the absence of a steady hand at the wheel hurt New York, who managed just 14 assists on 32 made baskets to go with 12 turnovers.
More importantly, the combination of injuries and the continued ineffectiveness of Landry Fields and Anthony Carter meant D'Antoni had to roll the dice with a crunch-time lineup composed of one star (Anthony), one backup (Douglas) and three players (Jeffries, Roger Mason Jr. and Bill Walker) who wouldn't crack the rotation of an honest-to-God contender. The team competed with energy and determination — D'Antoni said he "probably [has] never been more proud of a team and how they battled the circumstances, how hard they played and how tough they played" — but still came up short.
"[We] gave ourselves a chance to win," D'Antoni said. "We just didn't quite do it."
At some point, the gap between the conventional wisdom and the specifics of the present circumstance grows too large for the old adages to cover. As the final buzzer sounded in the TD Garden on Tuesday night, it felt damn near cavernous, no matter where the next game is or how many more chances the Knicks have.
Rajon Rondo deserves a lot of the credit for that. The Celtics' point guard rebounded from a rough shooting night in the series opener to pour in 30 points on 23 shots, many of them starting in a transition opportunity and ending directly at the rim, to go with seven assists and four rebounds.
So does Kevin Garnett, who defended actively, hit the glass for 10 rebounds and distributed six assists, contributing even though his shot wasn't falling. And though he'd missed 10 of 15 attempts from the floor, when Boston needed a bucket with 13 seconds left, it was Garnett who went down in the post and bullied Jared Jeffries, getting a too-easy hook shot in the paint that put the Celtics up 94-93. On the ensuing Knicks possession, when a blanketed Anthony drove and dished to an open Jeffries, it was Garnett who swooped in and stole the ball to seal the victory.
If Rondo took his foot off the gas early or Garnett wavered late, Boston might find themselves traveling to New York knotted at one game apiece. They didn't, so they don't.
Still, for a team up two games to none in a best-of-seven series, the Celtics didn't sound particularly thrilled with the run of play.
Captain Paul Pierce (20 points on 8-for-18 shooting, five rebounds, two assists): "It was really good to get the win, but we're disappointed with the we we played tonight. We gave up a big lead [Boston held a 74-63 advantage late in the third quarter], and with the circumstances, I thought we should have pushed the lead."
Reserve forward Glen Davis (four points, six rebounds, two assists in 27 minutes of run): "We didn't do what we needed to do ... We've got to play better if we want to be champions."
Garnett: "I'm sure we'll come in here tomorrow and make some adjustments and try to apply them to the next game."
Rondo: "We're not happy with the win, but obviously you'll take any one you get in the playoffs. But we know we have a lot to improve on."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers echoed the sentiment.
"You know, we won the game — that's all we get out of this," he said.
Asked later about whether his team eased up after Stoudemire left the game, Rivers said, "I don't know if we let down; we just didn't play well, we didn't execute very well," before deadpanning, "Listen, I'm extremely happy — I think you can tell that."
You can understand why he'd be less than thrilled. While his team's certainly good enough to advance past the Knicks while operating at less-than-peak efficiency, Rivers knows that a potential second-round matchup against the Miami Heat would pose a far sterner test.
That much makes sense, sure. But an awful lot of Game 2 didn't. To wit:
• Two teams combining to miss 32 of 50 shots in the first 12 minutes, yet finishing the game hovering around league-average offensive efficiency (Boston just above at 106.7 points per 100 possessions, New York just below at 103.7);
• Ray Allen getting just eight field-goal attempts in 39 minutes, despite having made six of them (including all four of his 3-pointers) and having both led the Celtics in scoring and hit the game-winner two nights earlier;
• The Knicks out-rebounding the Celtics 53-37 and grabbing more than two out of five available offensive boards (a rate that would have been far and away the best in the NBA this year), despite being the league's sixth-worst squad on the offensive glass this season;
• Walker missing all 10 of his field-goal attempts, yet finishing with a +14 line;
• Mason Jr. playing nearly 18 minutes in a playoff game after logging just 319 minutes total in 26 appearances during the season;
• And, of course, a final four seconds featuring an inbounds pass to the back court that utterly flummoxed the Knicks and caused Anthony to spend a few ticks chasing Delonte West around.
Asked what happened on that final sequence, D'Antoni laughed weakly and offered a simple explanation.
"[West] just got away," he said. "I think 'Melo was going, 'I don't think I can get out there' — he was so tired at that point. It was tough; he just got away from us."
And so did the Celtics. Huge chunks of Game 2 eschewed reason, but the end result is as sensible as it gets — the defending conference champions now hold a commanding advantage over a wounded and overmatched opponent.