The New York Knicks haven't won a playoff game in 10 years and haven't won an NBA championship in almost 40, but for the first 24 minutes Sunday night, it was the Boston Celtics who looked like yesterday's dynasty. Then the second half began, and we realized this tug of war for relevance would be more competitive.
After the Knicks shot 51 percent over the first two quarters to turn Boston fans into zombies and give themselves a 12-point cushion headed into halftime, the Celtics came out and held them to 13 points in the third quarter, giving themselves a chance going into the fourth. And that's all Boston needed.
When Ray Allen nailed that game-winning three, it seemed like less of a dagger than the deliberate, final kill shot the Celtics had been building to all night. At this point, you get the feeling it's part of Boston's design. Almost like a basketball rope-a-dope. If they're going to win in these NBA Playoffs, it'll be ugly, it'll be labored, they'll need some lucky breaks, and in the end, it'll up be up to one of their veterans to make a play to put it away. Sunday, that was Ray.
But from a broader standpoint, if you want to explain what made the NBA Playoffs so generally irresistible through the first weekend, you won't do better than Knicks-Celtics Sunday night. Like, why do we love this stuff? Because the playoffs are where teams can either officially lose a step, or finally take the next step. That's the Knicks and Celtics in 2011. Where superstars fade into the twilight or burst to the forefront. KG and Amar'e. Where coaches earn their money or they lose their job. Mike D'Antoni, anyone?
All of this is universal to most sports, of course, but in the NBA, there's nowhere to hide.
"The NBA's just full of individuals," people sneer during the regular season. But the playoffs is when that curse becomes a gift. When we see stars try to stave off the realities of aging, others try to shape a new reality for themselves and their teams, and the faces of each player tell the story.
Whether it's Ray Allen pumping his fist after making his game-winner or Carmelo Anthony slumping his shoulders after missing his, you don't have to dig very far to see this take shape. It's all right there in HD, and nowhere moreso than with the Knicks and Celtics.
For a first round series, this is as rich as it gets. Think of it metaphorically.
On one side, you have a car in the midst of an overhaul; there's a new engine (Amar'e) and a new transmission (Carmelo) that theoretically puts them in an elite class. At the time, the clutch is rusty (Billups), the spark plugs (Landry Fields, Toney Douglas) can't really withstand that kind of pressure, and nobody's sure whether the driver (D'Antoni) can handle it all.
On the other side, you have an antique that's been chugging along for longer than we expected, but all of the parts could give out at any second. There's still plenty of pickup left, but instead of the well-oiled machine of years past, this version sputters and wheezes its way to the finish line. It also just lost a part (Kendrick Perkins) that may or not cause the whole thing to fall apart quicker than anyone expected.
One car in the midst of an ongoing overhaul, the other trying to stave one off, both gunning for a victory to validate their fragile condition—neither car's flawless. But the race couldn't be better.
And Sunday night, anyway, it delivered on the hype. The Knicks shot out of the gate, the Celtics slowly closed the gap, and at the finish, it came down to who could hit the extra gear. Ray Allen took the Celtics there, and Carmelo Anthony couldn't respond for New York.
With Boston and New York, it's the first leg of what should be a pretty fascinating six or seven game marathon, and it's also a microcosm of a pretty exhilarating first weekend of playoff hoops. In two days we've already seen the Bulls and Thunder pass some pretty serious tests, while the Lakers and Spurs failed theirs. We've seen Dirk and Jason Kidd will the Mavericks to a win, while Dwight Howard's will wasn't enough against the Hawks.
All weekend, that Knicks-Celtics tug of war has been everywhere. Between established and emerging teams, old and young, personified by superstars coming through in the clutch or disappearing down the stretch. The Celtics and Knicks may have been the most extreme example, but all of it's been just as good as advertised. And the best part? That was only the beginning...