Melo, Knicks miss opportunity in tough loss to Celtics
BOSTON – Carmelo Anthony made a right turn at the Celtics’ family room, where Ray Allen was waiting outside the door. They shook hands, and Anthony nodded. It was a moment, a snapshot for Anthony on a long, painful walk out of TD Garden.
In this dizzying first weekend of the NBA playoffs, with superpowers dropping like Allen 3-pointers on their home floors, it was the Knicks who played the role of upstart — a contradiction, given from whence they came and the star power they brought with them. After two days of the playoffs, which have packed more madness into 48 hours than the other basketball tournament spanning the month of March, this was what you came away with: a handshake, a missed opportunity, an atmosphere ripe for overreactions.
The aftermath of the Celtics’ 87-85 victory over the Knicks in Game 1 of their first-round series Sunday was as striking as the game itself. From Anthony’s postgame walk of shame, with a 1-for-11 second-half shooting performance left behind in the interview room, all but forgotten; to coach Mike D’Antoni biting his tongue about how Amar’e Stoudemire never touched the ball again after two ferocious dunks that threatened to bury Boston in an 0-1 hole; to Chauncey Billups, the champion point guard, limping out of the building after his left leg buckled in the final minute.
“They didn’t do anything special,” Anthony said. “They won Game 1 here on their home court. They did what they’re supposed to do, and now we’ve got another shot at them.”
The chorus of criticism Anthony will be hearing over the next 48 hours will be something like this: “Let Amar’e take that shot.”
But in a way, this was a compliment to the Celtics, from whom we’ve come to expect exactly this type of drama and heroics in the crucible of the playoffs. An alley-oop lob pass to Kevin Garnett on an inbounds play to cut the Knicks’ lead to 85-84 with 37 seconds left? A 3-pointer from Allen for the deciding basket with 11.6 seconds to go? Of course; these were the Celtics. As Derrick Coleman once said, whoop-de-damn do.
“We’ve been together a while, man,” said Paul Pierce, who’d sized up Anthony, sensed the Knicks’ confusion when Allen set a screen on him, and found Allen open for the winning three. “You want to set a tone, especially at home in Game 1. You don’t want to give any team confidence in your building.”
This was the lesson learned after the Magic squandered an historic performance from Dwight Howard and lost Game 1 at home to the Hawks. Hours before tipoff Sunday, the Celtics showed up to begin the drive for their 18th title with the knowledge that the 61-win Spurs had dropped their series opener at home to the Grizzlies, and the defending champion Lakers had been victimized by the Hornets and an otherworldly performance from Chris Paul.
“What was interesting was what we saw yesterday and today,” said Allen, who etched yet another game-winning shot onto his Hall of Fame resume. “You see teams on the road playing good basketball, so I’m sure New York comes in here thinking the same thing.”
And the Knicks left thinking something different. They left with regrets spawned from a five-month chase to acquire Anthony, along with all the requisite blessings and curses that come with him.
Anthony had walked off the floor, shaking his head after missing a 3-pointer in front of the Celtics’ bench as time expired — a shot Celtics coach Doc Rivers thought was going in. The Knicks had no timeouts to set up what should’ve happened there — something, anything through the hands of Stoudemire, who emerged in his playoff debut for the Knicks as a mountain of a man despite a playoff resume that had always left people wanting more.
Billups, the other component of the trade that vaulted the Knicks back into the basketball consciousness and the Nuggets into a first-round battle with Oklahoma City, was already in the locker room when Anthony’s final shot clanged off the rim. Afterward, the 34-year-old point guard reported that his left knee had “buckled” on a drive to the basket with the scored tied 82-82 with 50.7 seconds left.
Billups said doctors called it a “strain,” which usually is a euphemism for something worse. Asked if he’d be ready for Game 2 Tuesday night, Billups said, “I really don’t have a clue.”
So with the usual sixth-sense execution and a rejuvenating performance from Jermaine O’Neal — who climbed out of his mummy tomb to somehow record 12 points on 6-for-6 shooting and four blocks — the Celtics did what they’ve done since their Big Three came together. On this night, the Knicks’ first taste of the playoffs in seven years during a lost decade at Madison Square Garden, the road team’s Big Three was reduced to one.
The one who got the ball only once more after delivering two thunderous blows to the Celtics’ formidable chin with jaw-dropping drives to the basket with less than four minutes to go.
After Billups had broken a 75-75 tie with a 3-pointer, Stoudemire smelled blood following an offensive foul at the other end by O’Neal. Sizing up Kevin Garnett at the left elbow, Stoudemire darted baseline and converted a spinning, reverse layup more suited to Derrick Rose’s YouTube archive. After a three-point play by Allen and a turnover by Pierce, Stoudemire camped out at the left elbow again and attacked Garnett, and then the rim, with a fury rarely inflicted on the Celtics in this building.
Improbably rising in traffic and firing the ball through the rim — and almost in one of O’Neal’s ears and out the other — Stoudemire gave the Knicks an 82-78 lead with 2:47 left. Seconds later, he swatted Allen’s layup attempt at the other end, his second block to go with 28 points on 12-for-18 shooting with 11 rebounds.
The Knicks will be waiting until Tuesday night for Stoudemire to take his next shot. It was all Anthony from that point on, and it was all bad: a turnover, a missed jumper, an offensive foul that had Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni flirting with a fine in the postgame news conference, and then the final ugly sequence that sent Anthony marching off the floor in defeat, a white-and-green celebration all around him. Anthony was 1-for-11 in the second half. Stoudemire was 6-for-7 in the fourth quarter alone.
“I think we were doing everything in our power to get Amar’e the ball,” Anthony said. “He had it going. He was the horse we were riding tonight. Tonight was his night. We tried to go to him, we were going to him, and he was producing. Toward the end, I think the Celtics made some adjustments.”
Rivers said he instructed Garnett to start fronting the high post after Stoudemire had unleashed those two dizzying drives, and it worked. He picked his poison — inviting Anthony to beat him — and he won that test of wills and wits in Game 1.
“We feel comfortable with Carmelo shooting the ball there at the end,” Stoudemire said. “He’s been doing that his whole career.”
On a day teams in the Knicks’ position had beaten the two best teams in the West, the Celtics were still standing on the opposite coast. As Allen strode down the hall holding one of his children, Billups was limping toward the exit at TD Garden — probably wearing the same attire he’ll be wearing Tuesday night, a suit. Anthony followed him, shuffling his feet and staring down the long hallway. Staring at a missed opportunity and breathing the same air exhaled moments ago by Stoudemire, who was already gone.