In praise of the Knicks, who escaped their tormentors

Jim Rogash

It was a bit more difficult than predicted, but New York finally ended a long drought with a playoff series win.

BOSTON -- Before we get to the part about how they almost blew it in unconscionable fashion against a team they had thoroughly dismantled only to let them back off the mat through a series of catastrophic blunders and unfortunate sartorial decisions, let us say good things about the Knicks.

They came into this series with the weight of history on their shoulders and they saw it through to the other side. It had been 13 years since the Knicks won a playoff series, back to the days of Spree and Van Gundy, and now they have buried those ghosts and their eternal tormentors in green.

It wasn’t elegant in the way these things are supposed to be and it was a hell of a lot harder than they probably thought it would be, but they did it. The Knicks are going on to the second round of the playoffs where they will face an Indiana team that had an equally inglorious run out of the first round, albeit with far less drama.

"It’s a small step, but it’s a giant step," Tyson Chandler said. "Because as we know the history of this franchise, it’s a struggle."

For the first three games of this series the Knicks were better than the Celtics and by a wide margin. That they let the C’s back in thanks to an ill-timed elbow from J.R. Smith and a team-wide regression offensively, are lessons for the future. Whether they heeded them or not will be told in the next round or the one after that.

But that’s what the playoffs are all about. When you win, you don’t have to make apologies for how you got there. The Celtics learned that in 2008 when it took seven games to get past the Hawks in the first round.

The biggest lesson here, beyond the silly stuff, is that as good as Carmelo Anthony is, they simply can’t play the kind of stagnant offense that almost led to their undoing. The Pacers are every bit as good defensively as the Celtics and they’re younger and bigger. They’re also not as horrifically bad on offense as the C’s are, which will make them a much tougher opponent. If the Knicks make themselves that easy to guard in the second round they won’t live to see the conference finals.

When they were good against Boston it was because players like Pablo Prigioni were moving the ball and hitting shots. It was because Ray Felton was dynamite in the pick and roll. So much of it is on Melo’s shoulders, but he can’t carry all of it. Not because he isn’t great or capable, but because that’s not how the Knicks are successful.

"They can beat anybody when they play right, I’ll tell you that," Doc Rivers said. "They have a lot of firepower and they showed that in stretches tonight."

***

It was 75-49 when Avery Bradley made a jump shot. During the timeout, Rivers had little to say to his team as they sat dejectedly on the bench. Timeouts during the playoffs are unbearably long and Rivers had run out of things to say, so he turned his back and stood a few feet away from them with his arms crossed staring at the court.

A few minutes later, Bradley got a steal and went in for a layup. He got another one and another after that and when he sailed in for a dunk to make it 79-75 the Garden erupted in an unholy roar that shook the building and was heard all the way down Causeway Street.

This wasn’t really happening, was it?

"It was a microcosm of the year," Rivers said. "I think we’ve been counted out four or five times this year. When (Rajon) Rondo went down, when Jared (Sullinger) went down and each time we just fought back. And then it happened again."

Chandler was on the bench during part of the run and was thinking, "What are we doin’ fellas?"

What they were doing was playing right into the Celtics hands with a series of elbow isolations for Melo and Smith that went nowhere. They had lost that edge that makes them so tough to defend and they were regressing right before our eyes.

"It felt like it wasn’t real," Iman Shumpert said and he wasn’t the only one who felt that way. But they survived. Melo made a couple of tough shots and Shumpert, who was fantastic, had a huge steal and dunk against a suddenly hapless Paul Pierce that may have been the biggest play of the game.

They didn’t win because of Melo’s clutch shotmaking. They won in large part because they didn’t need his heroics early in the game and because the Celtics offense was so, so bad. They deserve credit for part of that, as well, but how much is up for debate. We’ll find out.

"I think even though they were missing obviously a huge part of their puzzle, it’s still an efficient team," Chandler said. "That team has won a championship and has been there another time. To be able to hold a team to 27 points – a 10-point quarter – is impressive. I don’t care who you’re playing in the NBA. It was an incredible half that we put together and that’s something we have to build on."

Fair enough. The C’s may have been running the worst offense this side of last call at the Y, but the Knicks took away so many options the last resort was simply to have Jeff Green lower his head and barrel his way to the basket. They made Pierce look old and slow and while it’s easy to say he’s both of those things many teams have tried before. Only the Heat and LeBron James have been really able to do it over the years.

In the end that’s what we’re left with from this series. The Knicks finally beat back the Celtics and there doesn’t need to be any apologies for that.

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