BOSTON — Jeff Green has a lot of experience putting on a brave face. A person does not go into heart surgery at 25 years old without practicing the best way to look confident when, in a few moments, his heart will literally be beating outside of his chest.
With another loss to the Knicks less than an hour old, Green sat at the raised podium in the bowels of TD Garden on Friday and heaved a deep sigh. The defeat put the Celtics in a 3-0 hole in their best-of-seven series the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and anyone who had watched the first three games expects nothing less than a sweep come Sunday’s Game 4.
Green is not ready to say this is over, though. Not yet.
“They haven’t won it yet,” Green said. “One game at a time. As long as we’re still playing, we have a chance. It’s a new game — Game 4 — and we just have to leave it all on the floor.”
If only the Celtics had demonstrated that resolve while the game was going on, they might not be staring at such a daunting deficit. Aside from Kevin Garnett, who had 12 points and 17 rebounds in 34 effort-filled minutes, the Celtics lacked much of a pulse after they faced some adversity in the first quarter.
“I didn’t think we showed up not to play well,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, grasping for positive things to say about his team. “I thought, overall, our effort was there. I just thought we did lose our spirit early on.”
In a departure from the first two games, when the Celtics started hot and faded after halftime, the cold spell started early for the Celtics in Game 3. They missed four of their first five shots, including a layup by Pierce to open the game and a four-foot gimme by Garnett after an offensive rebound.
The Knicks had a shaky opening as well. They just recovered better. Iman Shumpert missed an outside shot and Raymond Felton threw the ball away on New York’s first two possessions, but thanks to the dual-point guards in the starting lineup, Pablo Prigioni and Felton, the Knicks corrected themselves quickly. Prigioni contributed two 3-pointers to the Knicks’ 10-4 run to begin the game, and at the four-minute mark Felton had two assists, two rebounds and a blocked shot. The Knicks, who need very little spark to start an extended run, were off.
The biggest issue for the Celtics, as it has been all series, was the floor spacing created by the Knicks’ pick and roll. Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin finished the game with only 11 points combined, less than half of Carmelo Anthony‘s game-high 26 points, but New York’s big men helped facilitate all the actions that gave the Celtics so much trouble.
With Chandler and Martin setting screens at the top of the key, Avery Bradley has looked decidedly average. Felton is making a mockery of the so-called “best perimeter defender in the NBA” by dribbling off the screens and getting into the paint at will. That has opened up the Knicks’ shooters, who simply need to set up beyond the arc and knock down the three when their defender dives into the paint to help contain Felton.
The Celtics were not scheduled to have a practice on Saturday, so it was unclear when Rivers would institute a new defensive approach, if at all. It was obvious to several players that something has to be done.
“Whatever gets us stops,” Green said. “If there’s something we have to do, I’m sure Doc will make a change if it comes to it. It’s tough. They have four shooters out there and Tyson running down the middle. We have one game to fix it. We win that, then we have another game. We’ve got to take one game at a time and just try to do the best we can.”
Nobody on the Celtics needs to be reminded that no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series in the NBA playoffs. If anybody can do it, it is a team that includes Green, who is used to beating the odds. Even with his recent health issues, however, Green faced better odds than zero.