What the Celtics have needed all season is to come together as a team, to move the ball and make the most of their talent, to not fall into ruts where other teams can feast on their weaknesses.
For many stretches this year, the Celtics could not do that. Then, even after they discovered how to play in such a way after losing Rajon Rondo to a season-ending injury, they stumbled again late in the season. Facing the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, it’s been even worse. Their first three games against New York were a template of exactly what they didn’t want to do.
But don’t fear, Celtics fans — the Knicks are here. And they’ve enabled Boston to do exactly what it wanted to do all year.
The Celtics have won two games in a row, including Wednesday night’s on the Knicks’ home court, and it hasn’t been a fluke. Boston has put a different kind of performance on the court both times. And, while the Celtics were not without rust in their two wins, they’ve at least shown that they can use their pieces in a way that will lead to victory.
The Celtics’ game planning has worked, for sure, but more of the credit may lie with the opponents. The Celtics knew what they had to do coming into the playoffs, and after Game 1, and after Game 2, but they haven’t been given the open door until now.
The Knicks have cleared the way both tactically and mentally for the Celtics to romp and possibly steal the most improbable of series wins. It started with New York’s inflated sense of confidence after taking down the Celtics twice at home and then once on the road. Up 3-0, the Knicks — who haven’t done anything in the first round in more than a decade — talked as if the series was won.
On Wednesday, the Knicks heeded the advice of Kenyon Martin and wore black to the game, calling it Boston’s “funeral.” That, coupled with sixth man J.R. Smith‘s boast that the Celtics couldn’t win if he was in the lineup (he was out in Game 4), had New York filling the clichéd storyline of what not to do when the series isn’t completely wrapped up, and when the other team is full of veteran All-Stars who are just as good at holding grudges as they once were at scoring points.
The Celtics won 92-86 on Wednesday night in a game they controlled a bit more than the score indicated, and even Smith was ready to swallow the bravado and put his workman’s cap back on. Smith played 36 minutes but shot just 3-for-14, scoring 14 points — most of them inconsequentially — and leaving a minus-8 mark for his team when he was on the floor.
“We were going to a funeral, but looks like we got buried,” the chagrined Smith said after the game. “I’m done with the black thing.”
Buried they were. While Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have no trouble summoning passion and knowing their place in the history of the game, the extra pokes from a Knicks team that has been heavy on drama and light on gritty work was the perfect touch for a team looking to crawl out of a 0-3 series hole.
That’s not the only area where the Knicks have enabled the Celtics, though. On the court, New York is starting to open Boston up for the opportunities it needs to play its best ball.
While Doc Rivers should get most of the credit for the tweaks that have given the Celtics a reliable option in the backcourt (Terrence Williams handling the ball has been great for the team), some movement on offense and performances from the players who need to be involved (Garnett and Green, most notably), the Knicks have played into what the Celtics want to do. The Knicks know the key to themselves winning is moving the ball, making the most of their guard tandems and using Anthony in the most effective manner. But in this series, they’ve sometimes regressed into the fun-if-it-works, horrific-if-it-doesn’t option of having Anthony or Smith isolate, and whatever an offense does to have Anthony go 8-for-24 and 0-for-5 on 3-pointers (Wednesday night’s line). The Celtics have started playing as a team, while the Knicks appeared unconvinced of that necessity.
Defensively, the Knicks have backed off their traps and double teams at key points, letting the Celtics get some momentum. They’ve failed to be committed to stopping ball movement, and as the Celtics have learned that they can trust each other, get several players scoring in double figures and outpace the Knicks just on the strength of sharing the ball, they’ve seen their game climb to a level that once again makes this series look winnable.
“We’ve got to trust each other,” Garnett said. “At this point we’ve got no other options. For us to be successful, we have to lean on one another.”
It’s a lesson the Celtics have always known but have had trouble putting in play. Thanks to the Knicks, though, they’re getting some real-time opportunities.