Posted Apr 18 2011 11:05AM
BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics and New York Knicks each have their flaws, but even when they both struggled in the second half of the season, they stuck with what they did well. Which makes this first-round playoff series between the two teams a matchup of strength vs. strength. Just different kinds of strength.
Mike D'Antoni's offense, starring Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, is the irresistible force. Doc Rivers' defense, anchored by Kevin Garnett, is the immovable object.
Over the course of 48 minutes Sunday, as the Celtics pulled out an 87-85 victory to open the series, we saw why both the Knicks' offense and Celtics' defense are so good. The result was an instant classic that went down to the final shot.
It wasn't a great offensive game for the Celtics, but it was even. They made no big runs (never scoring on more than four straight possessions) and they didn't suffer through any long droughts (never going scoreless on more than four straight).
Instead, the momentum in Game 1 was entirely dictated by the other end of the floor, where the league's fifth-best offense (New York's) met the league's second-best defense (Boston's).
When the Knicks took control of the game in the second quarter, it was because they scored on 10 of their final 12 possessions. Anthony made contested shots, Stoudemire was a two-way threat at the high post, and Ronny Turiaf got open near the basket.
When the Celtics came back and took the lead early in the fourth, it was because they stopped the Knicks on 20 of their first 26 second-half possessions. They didn't let Anthony get off any clean looks from the perimeter and Jermaine O'Neal defended the rim like it was 2004.
When the Knicks took a four-point lead late in the fourth, it was because they scored on nine of their next 11 possessions. Stoudemire destroyed the Celtics from the left elbow, knocking down jumpers and brandishing his strength and athleticism with two destructive drives to the rim.
But Ray Allen had a chance to win the game on the final possession because the Celtics were able to turn off the Stoudemire show. O'Neal took a charge to stop the run, and then Garnett continuously denied the high-post entry pass, keeping Stoudemire from touching the ball on the Knicks' final six possessions.
The Knicks' only points in that stretch came on a heedless three from Toney Douglas, a shot both teams were probably happy with.
Both the irresistible force and the immovable object had their moments on Sunday. And ultimately, great defense beat great offense.
Boston was terrific in defending Anthony in particular. Paul Pierce and Jeff Green contested his shots, and when he got into the paint, O'Neal was there to stop him. Anthony shot just 1-for-11 in the second half, rushing his shot at times.
It was an off night, but those come often against the Celtics.
"I don't think [Pierce] did anything out of the ordinary or special tonight as far as defending me," Anthony said. "I think the Celtics were themselves. They load the paint up. Every time I caught it, they loaded the side up."
The Knicks shot 54 percent in the first half because "we were giving them everything, comfort shots, breaking our defensive rules," Rivers said.
"Defensively, we joined the playoffs in the second half."
Though the Celtics' defense won the battle, it sure seemed as if they could do nothing to stop the Knicks in the second quarter, or when Stoudemire was driving baseline, taking contact, and still finishing at the rim in the fourth.
Rivers, however, isn't ready to sign off on the notion that the Knicks' offense is, at times, unstoppable.
"I don't know if that was their offense or our [lack of] defense, to be honest," he said. "I'm not giving that up."
The Knicks deserve credit for playing better defense than they had for most of the season. They know that a key to beating the Celtics is to make Rajon Rondo a scorer. If they hadn't done that, they would have had no chance in Game 1. But the Celtics were also too hesitant and too careless with the ball, committing 18 turnovers. In the end, they won because they perfectly executed two brilliant plays drawn up by Rivers.
Over the course of the series, the Celtics will get their points. Despite their late-season struggles, they're still a solid offensive team. And the Knicks aren't good enough defensively for any of these games to get too ugly. Sunday's 87-85 score was more about pace (84 possessions for New York, 83 for Boston) than efficiency.
The story of this series will be told on the other end of the floor. And if Rivers is right, and great defense continues to beat great offense, then the series will belong to the Celtics.
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