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NEW YORK – Carmelo Anthony had come a long way without a productive pass on Saturday, and as Kevin Garnett closed hard on Anthony, 'Melo waved his screener Kenyon Martin far away from the ball.
Right away, Anthony's instincts told him these were unwise circumstances to defy the double team. And so, inside of a minute left in Game 1 of this Eastern Conference playoff opener, Martin rolled to the rim and, yes, 'Melo owed that old, familiar face a pass over the top of a compromised defense.
Anthony fired high and wide, but Martin reached toward all those dusty banners in the rafters, snatching that wayward pass and somehow dropping the ball into the basket for the most devastating blow in this 85-78 victory over the Celtics.
"Dez Bryant," the Knicks' Jason Kidd marveled later. "That catch was incredible."
For all the fluidity of those Anthony jumpers on the way to his 36 points – so good early, and so good late in the victory – his first assist with 40 seconds left turned out to be a little too clumsy for comfort.
"K-Mart bailed me out," Anthony said.
[Related: Knicks finish third in NBA Power Rankings]
With Anthony shooting an impatient 13 of 29, and center Tyson Chandler making a sluggish return from a bulging disk in his neck, the Knicks survived these Celtics with vintage performances out of the old Eastern Conference champions from across the Hudson River. As New Jersey Nets, Kidd and Martin forever reveled in embarrassing the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. Now, they had spared Anthony the indignity of a seventh seed stealing Game 1 on him. They let 'Melo be 'Melo, jacking shots to his heart's content.
In all those years with the Nuggets, it wasn't until Chauncey Billups replaced Allen Iverson that Anthony advanced in the Western Conference playoffs. At 40 years old, Kidd controlled the fourth quarter without needing to score: with steals and deflections, loose balls gobbled off the ground, long rebounds and perfect passes.
Back in the Meadowlands, Kidd's toddler son T.J. sat on his lap for news conferences. Now, the kid can look his old man in the eye. Still, it feels like nothing's changed.
"He beats them into the ground with his brain," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "If you think quicker than a guy can move, you're still quicker. That's why he's there first, because he thought what the guy was going to do before he did it."
For everyone insisting these Celtics somehow didn't miss Rajon Rondo, Kidd's virtuoso performance was a reminder of why the Celtics so desperately do. The Celtics' superstar wouldn't match 'Melo with scoring, but has a history of controlling these playoff games across 94 feet of the court.
All those plays that Kidd made on Saturday, Rondo would've challenged him on every one and controlled his share. Before Game 1, Rondo had returned from his ACL rehabilitation in Louisville, Ky., stood on the Madison Square Garden floor and chatted with his old teammate, Brian Scalabrine.
"I was feeling it walking into the building," Rondo told him.
Just then, Knicks assistant Darrell Walker tossed him a bounce pass. "I know you want to touch it," Walker said, and Rondo squeezed the ball, smiled and fired it back.
The Celtics need to steal the close ones in this series, and they didn't do it on Saturday. For as relentlessly as Jeff Green defended him, Anthony still made such spectacular shots over Green's reach. He's devastating this way. The Celtics need to make these games ugly, need to get into Anthony's body, his space, his mind.
Garnett did it once this year, but it's hard to believe Anthony will let it happen again. Chandler left Dallas as a free agent to come chase a championship with 'Melo, and soon Kidd made the move, too. As Rivers reminded everyone, Kidd sees the play before everyone else – and that's why he changed his mind late in the free-agent process and bailed on the Mavericks.
And all of them lobbied hard for Knicks management to sign Martin, who no one in the NBA wanted anymore. Back with the Nuggets, 'Melo and Martin never did get past Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. Now, the Knicks are pushing for LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference championship.
One victory down, and a long, long way to go for the Knicks. All those shots on Saturday, all those points, and finally Carmelo Anthony lifted his eyes and made a play for an old, familiar face in the Garden. Yes, Kenyon Martin preserved 'Melo on that pass the way that 'Melo has preserved Martin's chance to get back into the NBA and back in this chase for a championship.
When Game 1 was over, Anthony was a most grateful teammate. All those failed runs in Denver, all the playoff futility in his past two seasons in New York, and 'Melo understands the truth now: He needs the help, needs these old Knicks legs to be young again.
In the end, though, they're all riding him. In the end, this is on Carmelo Anthony at the Garden. One down, and a long way to go.
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