The home crowd hadn’t seen a playoff game in years and seemed poised to blow the roof straight off Madison Square Garden. Spike Lee wore something—how should I say this nicely?—creative, and his Knicks brethren prepared for the game as if it were the Super Bowl. After so much losing, so many bad front office decisions, so much Jerome James and Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis and Isiah Thomas, the fans couldn’t wait to welcome Madison Square Garden to the postseason for the first time since 2004. Until the game started, that is, and Boston took an axe to New York’s neck.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo took New Yorkers’s collective excitement and bludgeoned it to death. By the time Boston had surgically dismantled the lesser team, New York’s bubbly post-Game 2 optimism had been kicked into hibernation. The Knicks weren’t close to the Celtics on this night. They couldn’t lay claim to playing tough, or playing well, or falling just short against a championship-caliber team. They wouldn’t say this loss was fun. Not after they were outclassed, out-hustled, out-played and out-coached. Not after they played in a way that made 20,000 rabid fans sound like a napping child.
Madison Square Garden was re-introduced to playoff basketball on a night the Celtics showed the Knicks what playoff basketball was all about. Ray Allen’s jump shot smelled like a French vanilla scented candle. Paul Pierce took out his Swiss Army knife and made precise, swift cuts. Rajon Rondo’s triple double was so perfectly Rondo, complete with bricked jumpers, rebounds a point guard should never track down, passes humans can’t normally make, and decisions that were simultaneously questionable and majestic. The Celtics ran a clinic, free of charge for anyone watching on TV, far too expensive for Knicks fans whose hearts were broken in person, and so thoroughly detailed in execution.
The Knicks were never close, not after Boston immediately jumped on top of New York and started swinging haymakers. A first-round knockdown came quickly; not even a quarter into the game, the Knicks laid on the canvas seeing stars after Boston’s original attack. For a brief spell, when Boston’s second unit performed like Boston’s second unit (which is to say poorly), the Knicks crept within single digits. But Boston’s fierce blows kept connecting, the threes kept falling, and the Knicks, with Chauncey Billups out and Amare Stoudemire only halfway functional, never had a chance.
This was how dangerous Boston can be, when all the All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers live up to their billing, when the shots fall and the offense catches up to the defense and the bench doesn’t screw things up too badly. If the NBA ever saw Boston as a team on its last legs, tonight was a reminder why the Celtics should never be counted out, that they’re a legitimate title contender, that the playoffs lift Boston to a different level of play.
Even in the glory of Boston’s first playoff blowout, the bench could not avoid my harsh words. Against teams that aren’t the New York Knicks, a negative plus/minus from every single bench player isn’t going to cut it. Hesitancy from Delonte West; the sense that Jeff Green feels lost; Glen Davis’s prolonged rut—all things the Celtics will have to address for the later rounds. But for tonight, give the bench a free pass and marvel at what the starters can do at their best.
Amare Stoudemire and Kevin Garnett shared shoves. Paul Pierce and Stoudemire bumped chests. Ray Allen—I repeat, Ray Allen—talked crap. The playoffs have been returned to Madison Square Garden, the so-called Mecca of Basketball, the home of a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in ten years, the home of a team on the verge of getting swept, the place where Troy Murphy finally made his first playoff appearance.