Blame the black suits. Blame an offense that's stagnated rapidly. Whatever it is, the New York Knicks have seen a 3-0 series that seemed like it would be a laugher deteriorate into a 3-2 series, and now they're heading up to Boston for Game 6, hoping to avoid a decisive Game 7.
The Knicks wore black clothes, because it was the Celtics' funeral! It wasn't, and Jordan Crawford said a mean thing about sex. The storylines and obvious enmity between these teams is enough reason for Game 6 to be must-watch, but the story of whether the Knicks can rediscover their elite offense after a pair of hideously ineffective performances -- or whether they keep the Celtics from another uncharacteristically strong shooting display -- will decide whether or not this one will come back to Madison Square Garden. The specter of the Knicks becoming the first team in NBA history to blow such a commanding lead is definitely looming.
This game gets underway at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Here are three questions about Friday night's Game 6:
1. Will the Knicks stop running so much iso?
I wrote about this in more detail yesterday. Posting and Toasting wrote about it today. The Knicks offense in this series has been historically dependent on isolation, and their performance out of those isos has been extremely bad compared to other forms of offense.
This is partly the Knicks' fault for settling a lot, with Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith often deciding to go solo and try to beat their man for a bucket. It's also partly the Celtics' fault for blowing up the Knicks' generally successful pick-and-roll action often enough that the Knicks hope an iso play can bail them out with seven or so seconds on the shot clock. And partly, it's on Anthony and Smith (two of the league's premier iso scorers) missing shots.
Regardless, this is a problem. The Knicks are one of the league's most efficient offenses, thanks to an array of shooting options spread around the perimeter, a strong pick-and-roll game between Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, and of course Anthony, who had an elite-level season. He led the league in scoring while finding guys off double teams, leading to a swing of passes around the perimeter and an open three for a good shooter.
Much of the stuff mentioned there besides Anthony trying to score has disappeared. That's excessively worrisome. Somehow, it hasn't hurt New York a whole bunch. They won the first three games in the series, recovered from an awful first half in Game 4 to force overtime, and lost Game 5 by just six points. Can they regain their offensive rhythm and gameplan, or will the Celtics' defense remain too staunch and Anthony and Smith too stubborn to make it work?
2. Can the Celtics keep hitting shots?
The Celtics in the first three games, all losses? 16-for-58 from downtown, 27.5 percent. In the last two, both wins? 43.2 percent, including an 11-for-22 effort in Game 5.
Again, some of this is on the Knicks, whose staunch defense both creating turnovers and contesting shots held Boston to under 80 points per game in the first three matchups, including the Celtics' franchise low for points in a playoff half in the second half of Game 1 - 25 - and then another franchise low for points in a playoff half when they only managed 23 in the second half of Game 2. But some of it was just incompetence: Paul Pierce hit only two of his first 16 attempts from beyond the arc.
In Game 5? He was his usual playoff-friendly sniper, drilling 4-of-8 threes, with Jason Terry adding five triples and his requisite "I'm a plane!" celebrations. It's also worth noting that the Celtics' 17-for-17 free throw shooting performance made them the first team in NBA history to have two games with perfect free throw shooting outings in the same postseason - and they did it twice in the same series.
The Celtics have bubbled up from downright incompetent to a reasonable team on offense, thanks to some timely, impressive shooting performances. Have these aging C's rediscovered their flair for the clutch and dramatic, or was their unflappable shooting a blip on the radar before regression to the mean?
3. Can the Knicks dodge Kevin Garnett's bullying?
At this point in a Hall of Fame career, we mainly see Kevin Garnett as an agitator. "AGHGHGHHHHHHH," he yells, before rambling pressers that boggle minds and soil trousers. And for good measure, he likes banging his head into basket stanchions. But let's not discount his on-court play, which has nagged the Knicks in all facets of the game.
The NBA's most insanely intense and/or intensely insane player has managed four double-doubles thus far this series, averaging 12.2 points and 14.4 boards, most recently a 16-point, 18-rebound effort in Game 5. On defense, he's been active defending the pick-and-roll and generally kept Tyson Chandler from unfettered runs towards the board for alley-oops. On the boards, he's outperformed a Chandler still looking hampered by a neck injury, limiting his signature tap-outs. And on offense, he's been an enervating thorn in New York's side: knockdown on 18-footers, and setting a million illegal screens per possession, knocking defenders astray just enough to allow for an opening somewhere.
A raucous Garden crowd will likely be fueled by Garnett's antics in Game 6. But it will be his play that will keep that vibe going. Can the Knicks figure out how to sell some of those illegal screens as fouls and keep Garnett off the glass?