For the better part of five seasons, and for decades more before that, the Celtics have set themselves apart as a team in complete harmony. What was known in Bill Russell's day as "the Celtic mystique" has since been simplified by Paul Pierce to "Celtic basketball," with all five players operating as one.
Yet on Tuesday, while a thrown-together group of players in green jerseys retreated on defense, they looked more like a bunch of guys who met moments before tip-off, as in a playground pickup game.
Not surprisingly, Boston's defensive rotations were a mess and the communication was poor as the Knicks drained 19 3-pointers and held off a Boston comeback in a 118-110 New York win at Madison Square Garden.
"We just didn't have a smart defensive game," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "And they made every shot, give them credit. But they had good shots, and that's where I was disappointed."
Steve Novak drained eight triples and J.R. Smith knocked down seven deep balls, all in the first half, but the Knicks' shooting was only a byproduct of the Celtics' shoddy defense. Several times, Celtics defenders were left pointing and staring at each other after another blown assignment created yet another open look for the Knicks.
"We were moving the ball great, and when you get it in the right spots like that and you're stepping into your shot on time like that, it's easy," Novak said. "When you're making shots, it's contagious. When you're missing shots, it's contagious. [Tuesday night] we all had it going."
The Celtics (36-26) blew a golden opportunity to gain traction in the standings. With the 76ers' loss to the Pacers, a Boston victory would have clinched the Atlantic Division title and a top-four playoff seed for the Celtics. The loss also dropped the Celtics a game behind the Hawks and Magic in the loss column as the teams vie for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Knicks (32-29) kept up their winning ways under coach Mike Woodson, and improved to 10-1 at home since Woodson replaced Mike D'Antoni on the New York bench.
Paul Pierce scored 43 points, the most by a Celtics player this season, but with Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus as late scratches, the Celtics' backcourt was stretched thin.
A unit consisting of Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, Sasha Pavlovic, Avery Bradley and Kevin Garnett shared the court for one stretch of the second quarter. While that group was not wholly responsible for the Knicks' 40-point outburst in that quarter, the lineup was emblematic of the Celtics' limited options to match up with the Knicks' three-guard units.
When New York added Novak to those three-guard groups, the floor spacing made it impossible for the Celtics to cover all four shooters while also guarding center Tyson Chandler, an excellent finisher at the rim, in the post.
The Celtics even tried sticking power forward Brandon Bass on Smith, a move than only helped the streaky shooting guard warm up with a few good looks over the much slower defender.
The Celtics are never ones to give up, and they didn't. After the Knicks' lead ballooned to 21 points, the Celtics pulled within six points on a pair of free throws by Pierce with a little more than three minutes remaining. But another defensive breakdown created an open three for Novak, then another, and it was on to Wednesday's game against the Magic. Maybe then Boston can play Celtic basketball.
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