The Celtics were the No. 3 seed playing against the No. 6, they had home court, and they were at relatively full strength. The Knicks were in enemy territory with two of their three best players missing in action. It was a victory in itself for Mike D'Antoni's club to steer clear of a 20-point blowout.
But they did a lot more than that. Chauncey Billups was watching from the bench in street clothes, hobbled by a strained left knee, and Amare Stoudemire was in the locker room getting treated for back spasms, but the Knicks pushed the heavily favored Celtics to the very last possession — again — because of one titanic effort from Carmelo Anthony.
"Mike came up to me in a timeout," Anthony said. "He was like, 'Amare is done. We need you to carry us tonight.'
"My thing was to just go out there, not try to carry the team by scoring the basketball, but just doing everything."
Anthony went off for 42 points, matching the career postseason high he set last year in Denver. He shot 14-of-30 from the field, 4-of-8 from 3-point range and 10-of-11 from the free-throw line. He threw in 17 rebounds, six assists and two blocks just for good measure. He took over a playoff game while surrounded by future Hall of Famers clad in green and white.
But ultimately, he lost. It was a bittersweet night for everyone involved. The Knicks go home frustrated because they're down 0-2, and the Celtics are equally annoyed because they allowed the game to slip away, enabling Carmelo to nearly steal it. The Celtics won 96-93, but they're not exactly thrilled.
"We won the game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That's all we get out of this. Great win — in the playoffs, the whole key is to win games, and we did that. But other than that, listen. They had no Stoudemire, he was out. No Billups, he was out. When I heard Stoudemire was out, I turned to Lawrence Frank and I said, 'Oh, geez, they've got us right where they want us right now.' Mike had his guys playing hard, playing free, and I thought we were lucky to win."
It wasn't all luck — the Celtics also needed extraordinarily good execution down the stretch. They fell behind by three with 2:36 left, as Carmelo nailed a 3 from 25 feet out to make it 91-88 in the visitors' favor. The C's needed everything to go right from there to the finish line, and nearly everything did — they got two free throws from Paul Pierce, back-to-back post buckets from Kevin Garnett, and finally a KG steal from Jared Jeffries with four seconds to play to seal the deal.
The Celtics came through, but they weren't celebrating themselves. They were awed by Melo, and determined to improve before Game 3.
"Melo was in an unbelievable rhythm," Garnett said. "Some of the shots he made were just incredible. We were trying to get the ball out of his hands, but great players make great shots. It came down the line to where we had to make some shots."
"We're not happy," added Rajon Rondo. "But obviously you take any win you can get in the playoffs. We still have a lot to improve on. There's just so many areas — they destroyed us on the glass. Obviously without Amare, we had to help a lot, but we've got to crack back. Our guys have to do a better job of boxing out the bigs. As a team, overall, we just have to do a better job of rebounding the ball."
The Celtics got outrebounded 53-37. They had a lot of defensive lapses against Anthony. They committed 22 personal fouls, allowing the Knicks to get to the free-throw line 27 times. They got virtually nothing from their bench. They were over-reliant at times on mid-range jumpers from Garnett and Jeff Green.
The Celtics did a lot of things wrong, and Carmelo Anthony did a lot of things right. They're up 2-0, but they're not satisfied.
"I'm happy we won the game, but I just know my team is better than that," Rivers said. "I know we can be better, and it's my job to get it out of them."