BOSTON — The New York Knicks were the better team. And in the end, the better team won.
But, man, the Boston Celtics certainly made New York sweat, putting on one more display of Celtic pride before bowing out in Game 6 of their first round series, an 88-80 victory for the Knicks that puts them in a conference semifinals matchup with the Indiana Pacers starting Sunday.
It’s New York’s first playoff series victory in 13 years, a mixture of relief and exaltation for their long-suffering fans. It’s the first time Boston has lost in the first round since acquiring Kevin Garnett in 2007, and maybe the end of the KG era. The Knicks had already ended the Celtics’ streak of five straight division titles, but this was the official changing of the guard.
Both teams did their best to make it interesting in the fourth quarter though. The Knicks lost their way offensively after building a 26-point lead early in the period. They stubbornly stuck to isolation basketball that produced only tough shots and turnovers.
The Celtics finally found some offense by turning up the pressure defensively. Avery Bradley‘s ball hawking produced five New York miscues in a six-possession stretch in the middle of the 20-0 run. It was a furious push, but it eventually ran out of gas and the Celtics could never get to within less than four points.
The hole had been dug too deep. The Boston offense never looked more anemic than in did in the first half of Game 6, scoring a paltry 27 points on 43 possessions. Their spacing was terrible, they couldn’t hold onto the ball, and they couldn’t make a shot. In fact, they had more turnovers than made field goals until the 7:45 mark of the fourth.
“They wanted to play well, and they didn’t,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of his team. “They know they’re better than what they played.”
Ultimately, as resilient as they proved to be, the Celtics were a team without a point guard or much of a shot against an opponent with much more firepower. But hey, they saved face after losing the first three games, avoiding the sweep on Sunday, making the Knicks look silly for wearing all black to Game 5 on Wednesday, and giving their fans one final thrill with the 20-0 run on Friday.
Now, they face what may be a difficult summer. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett looked older than ever in this series, and the best move for the franchise may be to part ways with their two prideful stars.
“We need more,” Rivers said “But the key is, for us, do you want to take away to get more? And that will be a decision that will be made later.”
“All three of us agreed to speak later,” Garnett added. “It’s a different day for that conversation.”
Rivers himself said he’s leaning toward coming back to coach at least one more year, but will take some time to make a decision.
The Knicks won’t have much time to prepare for the Pacers, an even tougher defensive team than the Celtics. And it doesn’t bode well that the Knicks scored less than a point per possession in this series and that Carmelo Anthony shot just 38 percent, at one point missing 19 straight 3-pointers.
“It’s not something I’m too concerned about,” Anthony said. “I’ll take those shots any day. I won’t stop shooting. My teammates need me to shoot.”
The good news is that New York may be playing its best defense of the season, having held the Celtics under a point per possession in five of the six games. It’s been three years since Boston was a good offensive team, but the Knicks’ defense was, at times, very responsible for how bad their opponent looked.
The Knicks ranked 16th defensively in the regular season and weren’t necessarily playing very well on that end when they won 13 straight games in March and early April. But they’ve seemingly flipped the switch.
“We have incredible athletes,” Tyson Chandler said. “That combined with focus is dangerous. I’ve been saying that the whole time I’ve been here and we’re starting to show it now.”
Chandler added that he feels 100 percent recovered from the bulging disc in his neck that he was dealing with late in the season, which may be the most important thing for the Knicks as they get set to face Indiana’s frontline of David West and Roy Hibbert. And that Iman Shumpert played one his best games of the season – 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting, six rebounds and a critical steal down the stretch – on Friday is also encouraging.
And hey, though the Knicks almost fumbled away that 3-0 lead they had, it takes a certain amount of resilience to finish off a series when your battle-tested opponent just doesn’t want to go down.
“It was an ugly series,” Knicks coach Mike Woodson said, “because neither team could really score or break loose. We did what we had to do to get out of this round.”