NEW YORK — These aren’t the same ‘ol Celtics.
No Rajon Rondo. No Ray Allen. No Perk, Posey or P.J. Brown.
They took another step backward this season, falling to seventh in the Eastern Conference. They were pretty awful on the road, their defense didn’t have quite the same bite, and their offense was pretty anemic. You never knew what you were going to get from them, maybe a win over a great team on one night and a loss to a terrible team the next.
And when they were down 0-3 to the New York Knicks in this first round series, it appeared to be time to finally count them out.
Well … uh … never mind. Maybe these are the same ‘ol Celtics.
Fueled by a defense that continues to hold it’s own against one of the most potent offensive attacks in the league, the Celtics staved off elimination for the second time on Wednesday. This time they did it in enemy territory, holding on for a 92-86 victory at Madison Square Garden that sends the series back to Boston for Game 6 on Friday.
So now, things get really interesting. No team in NBA history has ever come back from an 0-3 series deficit, but it’s starting to look like great defense can beat great offense. The Knicks have shot just 37 percent and scored just 94 points per 100 possessions over the last two games.
Coming up empty in Boston without J.R. Smith is one thing. But with Smith back and the opportunity to win a playoff series on their home floor for the first time since 1999, the Knicks laid another egg on Wednesday.
“Offensively, we were searching,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. “We’ve got to find some offense somewhere. We have been struggling to find points.”
In his return from a one-game suspension, Smith missed his first 10 shots and finished 3-for-14. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t much better, shooting 8-for-24, meaning that the Knicks basically got the same production out of the pair as they did in Game 4 (when Smith didn’t play).
The one thing the Knicks still have going offensively is Raymond Felton on the pick and roll. He continued to get to the rim in Game 5, rendering Avery Bradley useless and scoring 21 points on 10-for-19 shooting.
But too often, the Knicks became stagnant offensively, resorting to more isolations and contested jumpers. They’ve lived by the three all season, but have shot a brutal 12-for-52 (23 percent) from beyond the arc in the last two games. Anthony has missed his last 15 3-point attempts.
Of course, the Celtics wouldn’t have won Games 4 and 5 if they weren’t scoring themselves. And Wednesday was easily their best offensive performance of the series. Part of it was better execution. But mostly, they just shot better.
That was the one source of optimism when they were down 0-3. They’re a bad offensive team, but they’re not a bad shooting team, and they were missing a lot of decent shots in those first three games. The Knicks have played aggressively on the ball all series, leaving shooters open. And now the Celtics are finally making them pay. Their 3-point percentage has increased in every game of the series, peaking with an 11-for-22 performance in Game 5.
“We’re not a bad 3-point shooting team,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I kept telling our guys, ‘When you get them, take them.’ I kept telling them to let it fly. Don’t hesitate.”
Really, these are both jump-shooting teams, and games will sometimes be determined by whether or not the shots go in. But it was clear on Wednesday which team was forcing more misses. That’s the team that had its season on the line, the team that never goes down without a fight.
The Knicks wore all black to this game, thinking they were attending a funeral. Instead, they got a free trip back to Boston, thanks to a prideful team that just won’t die.
“We’re out here scrappin’,” Kevin Garnett told Comcast Sportsnet in an epic on-court interview after the game. “We know what they’re running. They know what we’re running. It’s just this is all out. Who wants this? That’s what it is. That’s all we’ve been doing these last couple of games.”
Same ‘ol Celtics, apparently. Never count ’em out.