BOSTON — This series might be more about the feebleness of the Boston Celtics, how they can barely run their offense against a team that ranked 16th defensively in the regular season, how they can’t hold onto the ball, and how they can’t make open shots when they get them.
When 6-foot-9 Jeff Green gets double-teamed by two point guards and can’t do anything but fall backwards and weakly flail the ball into the backcourt, you know the Celtics just can’t compete. And there were plenty of plays like that in the New York Knicks’ 90-76 victory in Game 3 on Friday.
But make no mistake about it. The Knicks have taken it to the Celtics in this series. They’ve earned their 3-0 lead and the opportunity to complete the sweep on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ABC).
Game 3, the first one at home, is supposed to be the game the underdog wins when they’re not completely outmatched. The Celtics, even without Rajon Rondo, weren’t exactly chumps this season. They had a top-six defense, a strong record at the TD Garden, and played the Knicks even in the two regular season meetings in which Kevin Garnett played. This squad of vets always has its pride and effort, and on this night, it had a little more emotion, playing its first home game since the Boston Marathon tragedy.
But guess what? The Celtics are completely outmatched. The Knicks are just a much better team. They were always better offensively, and they’ve now proven that they’re better defensively when push comes to shove.
“I thought we were a team that matched up really well with the Knicks,” Paul Pierce said. “I though we played them pretty good throughout the season. We lost a couple of close ones, but I didn’t expect this coming in. I knew this would probably be a long series, being the way we matched up. So I am surprised we’re down 0-3 right now.”
The Celtics’ offense did have an opportunity early on Friday to break through. They got to the basket and got open looks on the perimeter in the opening minutes. But the shots just didn’t go in.
The Knicks took advantage and, on this night, didn’t wait until the second half to put their foot on the gas. With Boston still struggling to score, New York clearly saw the opportunity to (essentially) put the series away. A 21-6 run just before halftime put the Celtics in an 18-point hole that they could never come close to digging out of.
After the Celtics missed those easy shots early, the Knicks didn’t let them recover. They turned up the defensive pressure, and in this game, the turnovers (18 of them) were more about New York’s pressure than Boston’s execution.
“Our goal was to not even let them believe they have a shot,” J.R. Smith said. “And I think we did a great job at that, and the way we got to it, defense and moving the ball.”
This is what great teams do. They don’t just hold serve. They break. They go into one of the toughest buildings to play in, play hard-nosed, aggressive defense, and execute offensively in a hostile environment.
Friday morning, Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he was “anxious” to see how his team would react in its first road playoff game. He got his answer, loud and clear.
The Knicks had a handful of quality road wins in the regular season, but this was a breakthrough, a performance to really build on going forward, a game to build trust between teammates who want to know they can count on each other to come through in difficult situations.
“The beauty about our team is that somebody has always stepped up when we needed it,” Woodson said afterward. “To me, that’s the sign of a team that’s committed, that’s together, and that’s trying to do one thing, win a title.”
Nothing on the Knicks’ side of the Game 3 boxscore stands out. Carmelo Anthony (26 points on 12-for-25 shooting) and Smith (15 on 6-for-12) were the leading scorers and each played a big role in the second-quarter run. Raymond Felton (15 points and 10 assists) continued to break the Boston defense down with the pick-and-roll.
But contributions came from everywhere. And it was really Pablo Prigioni who set the tone, getting his hands on balls defensively and knocking down three 3-pointers in the first quarter to help his team start to build an offensive rhythm.
And with Steve Novak finally knocking down a couple of 3s, everyone in the Knicks’ rotation is playing well. The Celtics will surely put up a fight on Sunday, but the Knicks look ready to close this series out and move on.
We knew they had the talent in this series. And now it’s clear that they have the toughness too.