Posted Apr 20 2011 11:10AM
BOSTON -- The New York Knicks are the team with the 0-2 deficit and health concerns regarding two of their three best players. They're the team that let two very winnable games get away.
So why does it seem as if the Boston Celtics have the bigger issues as the first round series moves to New York for Friday's Game 3?
In what has been a wild series, the Celtics have two wins and thousands of concerns. Tuesday's 96-93 victory was especially dispiriting, considering that the Knicks were playing without Amar'e Stoudemire, who left in the second quarter with back spasms, and Chauncey Billups, who suffered a strained knee in Game 1.
For a long stretch of the fourth quarter, the Knicks, playing with four flawed role players, were outplaying the Celtics, playing with four All-Stars. The Celtics' vaunted defense was getting beat almost single-handedly by Carmelo Anthony, who finished with 42 points, 17 rebounds and six assists.
Boston again found a way to escape. But it was as empty a victory as you can have in the postseason.
"We won the game," Doc Rivers said afterward. "That's all we get out of this."
The Celtics have a defensive system with well-defined principles which has been the backbone of their success over the last four years. And in each of the two games of this series, the Knicks' offensive talent has forced the Celtics to abandon those principles.
In Game 1, when Amar'e Stoudemire went off for 12 fourth-quarter points, the Celtics had to aggressively deny him the ball, sacrificing their ability to help on the ballhandler. In Game 2, with Anthony in the midst of scoring 26 second-half points, they blitzed him with a second defender on every possession, allowing Anthony's teammates to make runs at the rim and grab countless offensive rebounds.
Neither strategy is sustainable for more than a quarter, let alone a seven-game series. Whether Stoudemire is 100 percent for Game 3 or not, the Celtics need to find a better way to slow down the Knicks' stars.
The Celtics' also need to get more production out of their bench, which has been dreadful. Boston led by 10 points near the end of the first quarter on Tuesday, but with the bench playing, the Celtics allowed Anthony to lead the Knicks on a 13-1 run. Poor bench play was largely responsible for the Celtics' late-season funk, and poor bench play has kept the Knicks in Games 1 and 2.
As the series moves to New York, the Celtics can be happy about two things, other than the two wins. The first is their offensive execution down the stretch. In each game, they scored on four of their final five possessions, including four buckets that either tied the score or gave them a lead.
The second is Rajon Rondo's aggressiveness in Game 2. With the Knicks failing to get back in transition and playing him soft in the Celtics' half-court offense, Rondo attacked the basket and finished strong at the rim. He scored a season-high (and playoff career-high) 30 points, playing with a confidence that has seemingly been missing for the last two months.
The Knicks have to be feeling pretty confident, too, considering the circumstances. Their defense has been as good as it's been all season, they've put the league's No. 2 defense on its heels, and Game 2 proved that their role players can outplay those of the Celtics.
"In a tough situation like this," Anthony said, "coming down to the stretch, coming down to the wire, I think it gives [the New York bench players] momentum. It gives them confidence to know that, when their number is called, they can go out there and produce. I like that. I'm excited about that."
"We wanted to come in here and steal a game," Knicks reserve Bill Walker added. "We didn't do that, but we're confident we can play with these guys."
The drama of the first two games set up what should be a fascinating Game 3 on Friday. The Knicks are looking for the franchise's first postseason victory in 10 years.
The Celtics may very well win this series in four or five games. They're still the better team. They're 6-0 against the Knicks this season. And they still have the ability to play much better than they have in the first two games.
This is still mostly the team that looked dead in the water after getting destroyed by the Cavs in Game 3 of last year's conference semifinals and was still playing six weeks later.
But from what we've seen so far, these Celtics are not a team that can handle the Miami Heat in the next round. Because if they can't stop Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, they're not stopping LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. And if they can't score consistently against the Knicks' defense, they're really going to struggle against the Heat.
But those are worries for a week or two down the line. The Celtics have this series to get through first. And if they don't fix the issues that have come up in the first two games, the series will be as long as it has been wild.
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