NEW YORK – The New York Knicks have dreams of winning a championship this season.
After the first half of Game 1 of their first round series against the Boston Celtics – in which the Knicks allowed a bad offensive team to score 51 points on 47 possessions – those dreams looked like a joke.
In the past 11 years, only one team – the 2005-06 Dallas Mavericks – has ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency and made The Finals. The Knicks ranked 17th defensively this season. So while they’re a 2 seed that went 3-1 against the Miami Heat, they still have a lot to prove.
And they weren’t proving anything in the first 24 minutes on Saturday, allowing the Celtics to get the mismatches they wanted and failing to rotate fast enough when the ball moved to the weak side. To make matters worse, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year was not himself. Trying to play after missing 16 of the final 20 games of the regular season, Tyson Chandler clearly still felt the effects of a bulging disc in his neck.
But even without their defensive anchor, the Knicks managed to buckle down in the second half, holding the Celtics to an anemic 25 points on 42 possessions to pull out an 85-78 victory. It’s the first time the Knicks have held a playoff series lead since May 2, 2001.
The Knicks’ offense had been rolling at the end of the regular season, but the playoffs are a whole new ball game, and the Celtics are a terrific defensive team. Carmelo Anthony scored 36 points in Game 1, but needed 29 shots to do it. The Knicks got a total of three points out of three of their other four starters and the fourth, Raymond Felton, shot 5-for-13. The Celtics took away the Knicks’ pick-and-roll game most of the afternoon, forcing New York – who totaled just 13 assists – into a lot of iso-ball and late-in-the-clock pull-up jumpers.
For both teams, the best offense came from their defense. The Celtics one good stretch in the second half – 13 points on eight possessions late in the third quarter – came when they got some stops and got out in transition. The Knicks scored 20 points off those 21 Boston turnovers. Neither team was very successful in their half-court sets.
Boston was especially dreadful in the second half. They still got the switches, mismatches and double-teams they wanted, but the Knicks just had more energy and activity defensively. It helped that neither Kevin Garnett (4-for-12) nor Jason Terry (0-for-5) could buy a bucket, but Boston got just seven shots in the paint in the second half after getting 19 in the first half.
A final score of 85-78 is Eastern Conference playoff basketball at its best. And ultimately, the Knicks proved they can win ugly. They were held under a point per possession offensively and still managed to win by seven. It was the first time they’ve won all season when scoring less than 87 points (they were 0-6 in the regular season).
The Celtics believe this was more about their offense than the Knicks’ defense. They looked disjointed most of the afternoon and committed 21 turnovers, nine of them in the fourth quarter when the game was in the balance and the Knicks were leaving the door open for them to steal home-court advantage.
“I thought our spacing was horrendous in the second half,” Doc Rivers said. “I thought each guy held the ball and tried to make their own play, and I talked about that before the game. That’s not who we are. We can’t be that way, and we tried to play that way in the second half.”
While the Knicks deserve credit for forcing a lot of those turnovers – Jason Kidd still may have the best defensive hands and instincts in the league – Boston was careless with the ball. So they believe they can get Game 2 (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, TNT) by just executing better.
“We stopped playing the right way. I thought each guy was trying to win,” Rivers said. “I don’t think that’s hard to fix. I really don’t.”
Game 2 is both an opportunity for the Celtics to fix the turnovers and another opportunity for the Knicks to prove that their championship dreams are legit.