Carmelo Anthony starred and the New York Knicks showed more heart than anyone expected, but Kevin Garnett and the Boston Celtics survived it all. Boston won Game 2 on Tuesday night, and heads to New York with a 2-0 lead in the opening round NBA Playoffs series.
But a raw description of what happened doesn't quite do it justice... The Knicks showed heart and the Celtics survived, yes, but Carmelo Anthony didn't just "star" Tuesday night. He was THE star. He scored 42 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and carried a Knicks team that had no business competing. And for 48 minutes, everything on the court orbited around him—even the Celtics, swarming him on defense—and Carmelo occupied a universe that's only a dream to all but a handful of NBA players.
All of this made for a phenomenal game, obviously. And since it's not every day we get to see one of those games we'll hear about for years, let's give this the proper appreciation. So without further ado, five observations on a Game 2 we'll remember long after this series is decided.
1. The Dark Comedy Of The New York Knicks
I know we shouldn't laugh at the pain of others, but even if it's in a dark, guilt-inducing way, there's something pretty hilarious about the New York team we saw on Tuesday. For all of Carmelo's out-of-this-world dominance, the team surrounding him... Good God.
At one point, I joked that you could name any terrible player in the NBA, and he would have played at least 30 minutes for the Knicks Tuesday night. Seriously—what's the difference between Bill Walker (33 min., 0-11 FG) and Dominique Jones?
Can you tell the difference between Jared Jefferies (26 min, 5-7 FG) and Brandan Wright?
Or Roger Mason, Jr. (18 min, 1-4 FG) and, say, Acie Law? It's not just that the Knicks had an average supporting cast around Carmelo... These are borderline NBA players we're talking about. They happened to find the right situation and that's great for them, but if they're going to be counted on in crunch time of an NBA Playoff game, that's great for nobody. Not a guy like Jefferies, who suddenly found himself battling Kevin Garnett, and definitely not for New York.
So, to review: For almost 40 years, the NBA's most storied franchise has been searching for a superstar to match their pedigree, and when they finally found what they'd been looking for on Tuesday, they were so helpless elsewhere, that superstar's efforts came in vain. Part of this relates to Carmelo, too, but we'll get to that. As for the Knicks... Could it possibly be more cruel?
Like the athlete that spends 18 months rehabbing a horrific knee injury, all building to this big moment of triumph. He finally returns better than ever for the biggest game of the season, and just when the redemption story looks perfect, his other knee explodes.
That's the Knicks. Of course, there are medical reasons to explain why something like that happens. It happens often, actually—the athlete spends so much time rehabbing one leg, the other leg becomes weaker and more susceptible to injury, and... Boom. it's the same thing with New York. They gave up so much to get Carmelo, a situation like Tuesday was inevitable in sad, funny way.
2. The Celtics Look Pretty Vulnerable Right Now...
...And at this point, I'm convinced it's all part of the plan. As I said after Game 1, it's 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." Tuesday, it was KG.
It may be the only way the Celtics can in the NBA Playoffs this year, but even so, would you want to play them in a close game? How many times does Doc Rivers have to draw up a perfect play out of a late-game timeout before people realize this isn't a fluke?
It's not a coincidence that in two games that came down to the final possession, New York lost, and Boston won. With great teams, it's the last trait to go. You can take away speed, power, stamina... But mental toughness and willpower don't just disappear one day.
So, yeah... The Celtics are plenty vulnerable in some areas, and even Doc Rivers said after Game 2, "We were lucky to win." But not that lucky. When it comes to a close game in crunch time, there's no team more battle-tested and built to thrive. And in the playoffs, that counts more than just cliches.
3. Someone Go Hug Jared Jeffries
When he went right at Kevin Garnett and somehow made the finger-roll to put the Knicks up one in the final minute, everyone was like, "Wait, where's the Jared Jeffries we know and love?"
Then the final possession happened, and we were like, "Oh, there he is!"
And fair or not, that makes him the personification of everything that was wrong with the Knicks Tuesday night. He stepped up as much as he could, but at some point, reality sets in. Having said that, while America makes him the butt of every Knicks joke for the next few days, it should be noted that A) he had no business being in that situation in the first place and B) Considering he was sparring with Kevin Garnett throughout the second half, he did a pretty good job. Of course, none of this will matter, and he'll be remembered as the ultimate goat from last's night's game.
Which is understable...but also totally sucks.
So anyway, if you happen to be in New York and see Jared Jeffries this week, please, run up to him and give him a big, unsolicited hug. He needs 'em more than most right now.
4. When Rajon Rondo Is Rajon Rondo, The Celtics Are The Celtics Again. It's not that complicated. If Rondo can play the way he did through most of last year's playoffs, then Boston has a much better chance to do exactly what they did in last year's playoffs. Of course, toward the end of this season, Rondo looked nothing like the guy we saw last year, and that's why it became much easier to count on the Celtics.
And granted, it was against the Knicks, but just for the record... If you're keeping score at home, Rondo had 30 points for the first time all year on Tuesday, and somewhere down the road, you might eventually mark down "Game 2 vs. the Knicks" as the moment when Rajon Rondo got his confidence back, and the Celtics began to look like contenders again.
5. The Truth About Carmelo Anthony
There was a sequence during the third quarter that captured Carmelo's value to the Knicks better than anything else Tuesday night. The Celtics were on a 12-2 run and up by 11 with less than a minute left, and just when everyone was noticing how terrible the rest of the Knicks' roster was, Carmelo came down and buried a 20-foot jumper from the baseline with a man in his face, and about 20 seconds left on the shot clock.
It was a horrible shot, but at that point, because of how bad his teammates had been and how good he'd been, the rules didn't really apply to 'Melo. And he hit it, too, which always helps.
Then Paul Pierce missed a jumper on the other end, and 'Melo got the rebound, came down the court, drew a foul, and nailed two free throws. Just like that, an 11-point hole had become a seven-point game, and the Knicks still had hope going into the fourth quarter. And it was all because of Carmelo Anthony taking over, making shots that normal people wouldn't even take.
There are different kinds of superstars in the NBA, what makes someone like Carmelo Anthony special is what he can create all by himself. The same way Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and Chris Paul can go to their team and say, "Just let me take care of this," Carmelo can say that to the Knicks. Just when it looks like all is lost, a player like that can single-handedly give you hope.
And after that Game 2 performance, the most popular response will be, "This is why you trade for Carmelo Anthony." Indeed, during the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Steve Kerr said exactly that. Later, after the Knicks lost, Will Leitch wrote at New York Magazine and noted of 'Melo:
"Watching him, in a transcendent performance that will be remembered far longer than this loss will, you can't argue that [the trade] wasn't still worth it."
And they're both right, just not for the reasons they think. What happened in Boston doesn't mean the trade's suddenly a success. It proves it was worth the risk. After all, you don't make that trade thinking he'll one day carry you in a playoff game like he did on Tuesday.
You trade for him knowing that he can do what he did in Boston, and only three or four others in the NBA can make that claim. You trade for Carmelo because you can't not trade for Carmelo.
So since most of the NBA will be talking about him today, let me say—I've always rooted for Carmelo. I watched him in high school, I loved him at Syracuse, I rooted like hell for him and the Nuggets to knock off the Lakers, and even after he engineered that ridiculous trade ordeal, he still came off a million times more likable than LeBron James. But for all my personal bias, I'm not crazy enough to think Tuesday proved anything.
It's been true for years now; when Carmelo's hot, there's no scorer more deadly in the entire NBA. When the rules don't apply and he has to do it all himself, that's when he's at his best. That's what happened all night on Tuesday, when he won the hearts of Knicks fans everywhere.
But New York still lost.
And in the long run, if Carmelo's the savior in New York, the love affair won't last very long. There are different kinds of superstars in the NBA, but maybe Carmelo's not in that category at all.
It's not necessarily a coincidence that Carmelo had his best game as a Knick when he was the only Knick that mattered. Guys like Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Derrick Rose can be deadly without hurting their team. On the other hand, Carmelo's an assassin; assassins work best on their own.
Don't get me wrong; if the Knicks ever want to win a title, having a scorer as deadly as Carmelo will be an unbelievable weapon. But in the end, Tuesday's revelation changes nothing. There are different kinds of superstars in the NBA, and the Knicks still need another one.