The New York Knicks fell on their faces in Game 5, squandering a chance to win their first playoff series in 13 years and close out a series at home for the first time since 1999.
New York should have known that while the Boston Celtics lack depth and dynamism, they have plenty of fight and fury left. Nothing would give them more pleasure than to follow in the footsteps of the 2004 Boston Red Sox and devastate their NYC rivals with a historic comeback.
The primary difference is that the Red Sox were a very good team that fell behind 0-3. The Celtics, on the other hand, are not a very good team. They are old, shallow and playing without a real point guard. There's an expiration date on their success, and it's May 3.
The C's barely survived Game 4, in which they required overtime to stave off elimination after frittering away a 20-point second-half advantage, but then embarrassed the Knicks at Madison Square Garden with a seven-man rotation in Game 5.
On Friday, the Knicks will finally wake up from their slumber and repeat their stout play on the road from Game 3. They have the talent, defense and scoring to do it, and they'll break the slump in Game 6.
Game 6 Time: Friday, May 3, 7 p.m. ET
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Mass.
Series Record: 3-2 Knicks
Game 6 Key Storyline: Which Knicks Team Will Show Up?
The Knicks stormed out to a 3-0 lead and had visions of brooms dancing in their head.
But of course, the mercurial J.R. Smith allowed stupidity to get the best of him in New York's Game 3 victory. By slapping Jason Terry with his elbow, Smith earned himself a suspension for Sunday's elimination game.
Lacking a proper second scorer, the Knicks fell in overtime as a motivated Jason Terry scored the final nine points of the extra period.
Despite Smith returning for Game 5, it played out as if he was still serving a suspension. Perhaps he was already mentally on a golf course somewhere, as he stated that's where he would have been were it not for the suspension (per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com).
Of course the Knicks would have won with J.R., but he forgot to prove his point when he returned on Wednesday.
Smith shot a dreadful 3-of-14 from the field, including a 0-of-10 start, and managed just 14 points, discounting his meaningless last-second three-pointer in the loss. Carmelo Anthony continued his struggles from the field on Wednesday and has missed an amazing 41 shots in New York's two losses.
The Knicks have appeared rudderless in their last two tilts, and the offense has not been able to adjust to Boston's protection of the paint. If New York puts a halt to their stagnating isolation "attack" and becomes more aggressive to the hoop, it'll avoid an excruciating Game 7.
Series Star So Far: Kevin Garnett
Garnett pulled down at least 17 rebounds in Games 3, 4 and 5, which is absolutely astounding. Dennis Rodman, who had the elusiveness of a snake and the tenacity of a rhino, is the only other player to accrue that many boards in consecutive games at such an advanced age (per Wednesday's MSG telecast).
And KG is not just getting it done on the boards. He's averaging 12.2 points, 3.6 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. His communication and organization on defense are invaluable, and he even drained numerous dagger jump shots down the stretch in both Boston wins.
Who knows what the future holds for the 37-year-old Garnett? But the present is shining brightly.
Projected Starting Lineups
New York: Pablo Prigioni, PG; Raymond Felton, SG; Iman Shumpert, SF; Carmelo Anthony, PF; Tyson Chandler, C
Boston: Avery Bradley, PG; Paul Pierce, SG; Jeff Green, SF; Brandon Bass, PF; Kevin Garnett, C
Knicks Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Steve Novak (back), questionable; Amar'e Stoudemire (knee), doubtful
Celtics Injury Report
Rajon Rondo (knee), out for season; Jared Sullinger (back), out for season
Knicks Will Win If...
They actually run some plays and pass the ball.
The Knicks' offensive attack was virtually nonexistent in Game 5. Anthony and Smith persisted in jacking up jump shots, and only Raymond Felton attacked the bucket with any regularity.
The rest of the team should be looking to Felton and following suit. Their point guard cum shooting guard scored 48 points in the two Knicks losses and was the most efficient player by far. Iman Shumpert also turned in respectable production, with a dozen points in each game.
But Melo and J.R. have been awful and spectral respectively (see above). If the Knicks get their scoring champ and Sixth Man of the Year to play like they did in late March and early April, they can easily wrap things up in New England.
Perhaps more significantly, starting point guard Pablo Prigioni has shared in the woes of New York's stars. The Argentine managed only three assists and shot 2-of-11 in Games 4 and 5.
The Knicks totaled 17.5 assists per game in Boston's victories. That speaks to their atrocious ball movement, because the offense relied solely on isolation for long stretches of those games. As a result, they shot worse than 40 percent in both losses.
During the season, New York had the league's third-most efficient offense with a penchant for making the extra pass and finding an open shot. Mix that up with Anthony's ability to create his own shot at any time and Smith's potential for scoring in bunches, and they have more than enough firepower to clip the C's.
Now they just have to go out and do it.
Celtics Will Win If...
They continue to get a balanced scoring attack.
The Knicks defense held Boston to some incredible futility in the first three games. After an eight-point, eight-turnover fourth quarter in Game 1, the Celtics tied a playoff record by scoring just 23 points in the second half of Game 2. Their woes rode up to Boston with them, as they were held to 31 in the first half of Game 3.
And then one of two things happened: Either the wheels fell of New York's defense or the C's solved that riddle and found a way to score when it mattered.
Boston's starting "point guard," defensive specialist Avery Bradley, managed only one assist total in their two victories. But as a team, the Celtics racked up 42 dimes in those games.
Lately, they've continually been able to beat the Knicks' traps and get open looks or drives to the rim. The Celtics have also beaten New York at their own game, knocking down more three-pointers in their wins.
The veterans have taken care of business, with Terry, Pierce and KG each going for double digits in Games 4 and 5. But Jeff Green really punished the Knicks with 45 points to help the C's fend off elimination twice.
And with such a shallow lineup, Boston needs someone else to chip in a handful of points. Brandon Bass did all that and then some, surprising everyone with 17 points in Wednesday's win. If Boston can threaten New York with multiple scoring options, it will erode the defense and force Game 7.
Much has been made of the all-black "funeral" attire the Knicks wore on their way into Game 5, as well as the scuffle between the two teams after the buzzer sounded. The Knicks must put that all aside and play their brand of basketball on Friday.
Bernard King's 44 points in Game 6 of the 1984 conference semis should be the benchmark for Carmelo. King is Anthony's idol, and he should aspire to lead his team in just such a fashion. While he doesn't need to take 35 shots, he must realize that it's all on his shoulders.
If the Knicks become the first team to blow a 3-0 series lead, it will make nine out of 10 seasons in which Anthony has exited the playoffs in the first round. He has to prove to the league that he can lead his team to where they're supposed to be—and this year, that's nothing short of the conference finals.
They've already squandered the chance to get some rest before Round 2, but New York will stop their skid and finally play like the superior team for the first time since Game 3.
Simply put, the Knicks are better than Boston. The experienced Celtics wouldn't go down easily, but New York will come out with defensive intensity and more than isolation on offense.
Mike Woodson will have eviscerated his squad for their lackluster effort, and that will be enough to elevate New York's play to the level it should be at.
They will be more focused in Game 6, thinking not about the glory of closing out at home, but the shame that would follow from a choke job in the series. That won't result in tentative nervousness, but rather, singular determination.
Prediction: Knicks 91, Celtics 82