Posted Apr 23 2011 3:23AM
NEW YORK -- The crowd filed into Madison Square Garden looking to see the home team's first playoff victory since 2001. Instead, they witnessed a breakthrough for the Boston Celtics.
In crushing the Knicks 113-96 to take a 3-0 series lead, the Celtics put together four quarters of quality basketball on both ends of the floor, for the first time in a long time.
Chauncey Billups didn't play and Amar'e Stoudemire was far less than 100 percent. But even if both of them were fine, the Knicks weren't winning this game. It was the Celtics' game from start to finish, and the opponent really didn't matter.
The Celtics were up 2-0 in the series before Friday, but there was little satisfaction in their victories in Boston. The two wins got the Celtics closer to the conference finals, but they didn't get them any closer to beating the Miami Heat.
In both Games 1 and 2, they allowed the Knicks to hang around for too long, and needed last minute buckets and stops to escape with victories. Game 3 was much different.
"I think we put together four quarters," Rajon Rondo said afterward. "I think in the first two [games], they outplayed us in the first three [quarters], but we just executed down the stretch. Tonight, as soon as we took care of the ball in the second half and we played our game, we opened the game up."
From an efficiency standpoint, it was the Celtics' best offensive game since they beat the Lakers in L.A., way back on Jan. 30. They scored 113 points on 94 possessions, highlighted by a 34-point third quarter and a stretch of 10 scores in 11 times with the ball.
Through all of their struggles in March and April, the Celtics' defense had been just fine. But offensively, they were incredibly inconsistent and somewhat anemic. Even in Games 1 and 2, against the Knicks' sub-par defense, they could only put together one big quarter per contest.
Friday's breakthrough was orchestrated by Rondo, who recorded his sixth career postseason triple-double, featuring a career postseason-high 20 assists.
"He got us into a rhythm," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "When he gets into a rhythm, it allows us as coaches to get into a rhythm, because we see the game through him."
The Knicks' strategy in defending the Celtics has been clear: make Rondo a scorer. But soft defense on the point guard only works if the defenders guarding Ray Allen and Paul Pierce don't let the wings break free. Thanks to better screens from the Celtics' big men, Allen and Pierce got open early and often. As a result, Rondo's dimes came pretty easy.
With plenty of space to shoot, Allen and Pierce combined to make 25 of their 37 attempts from the field and 14 of their 19 shots from 3-point range, quieting the New York crowd early and never letting them get back into the game.
"It just seemed like it was a domino effect," Carmelo Anthony said of the Celtics' offense. "Everybody started hitting shots."
Kevin Garnett's line of nine points and 12 rebounds was rather pedestrian compared to the numbers the Celtics' other stars put up. But when the Celtics are playing well, the individual numbers don't mean much. The ball finds the open man, no matter who it may be. Success comes not from the individuals, but from the collective group.
The Celtics are known for their defense, but when their offense is clicking, it's a thing of beauty. That was the case on Friday, when they assisted on 31 of their 42 field goals. They kept the Knicks in the game by committing 15 turnovers in the first half, but once they cleaned up the mistakes in the third quarter, the game was over.
Whether they've had Kendrick Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal or Jermaine O'Neal playing center, the Celtics' starting lineup has been dominant this season. Thus far in this series, they've outscored the Knicks 202-157 with their four All-Stars on the floor together.
Pierce and Allen probably aren't going to shoot this well again. And once this series is over, the quality of defense the Celtics will face in the Eastern Conference playoffs will increase dramatically. But Boston needed this performance to finally move forward after treading water for the last seven weeks.
To win the NBA championship, you have to play at an elite level on both ends of the floor. The Celtics finally did that on Friday.
It's still unclear if they can play this well four times against the Heat. And in the next round, they'll definitely need better minutes from their bench. But this was a big win in more ways than one. And it may have been the start of something even bigger.
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