A report from the New York Daily News claimed that Mike D’Antoni would be fired if his Knicks did not beat the Celtics on Friday night.
Down two points, perhaps coaching the final timeout of his Knicks career, D’Antoni combed his mustache, prayed for the ghost of Steve Nash to come save him and looked at Carmelo Anthony and Amare, two of the NBA’s most dangerous scorers. He then tapped on his right arm for the relief pitcher, a 6-foot-10 former Marquette Golden Eagle who is averaging just 3.7 points this season and had yet to play a single second Friday night.
Steve Novak came off a screen, the rest of the Knicks seemed really confused, Landry Fields passed to Novak in the corner, and if D’Antoni’s Knicks tenure really does end after that — a leaning, fade-away three from a perfectly cold 10th man — there is no more fitting end to a befuddling era of un-kept promises.
The Knicks led by ten points in the third quarter; at that point, it did not look like their chances would ever come down to a Novak prayer. But the Celtics — who did not ever hit their offensive stride, even during their comeback and subsequent seizing of the lead — began to work harder. Chris Wilcox fought for balls he had no business snatching. Paul Pierce followed his missed shots and chased them into the back court to save possessions. Rajon Rondo squirreled his way underneath, keeping possessions alive using sheer will, and the rest of the Boston cast fought like hell even while the rim tightened its dress code and allowed very few shots to pass through the cylinder.
The game slowed to a defensive battle, which surely favored the Celtics, and it helped that the Celtics had Pierce and the scorching right hand of Walter Ray Allen on their side. But this game easily could have gone the other way. Iman Shumpert missed a wide open three, the Celtics followed with a shot clock violation (which was *thisclose* from being an absurd Pierce three), Landry Fields missed a decent look from the corner partially due to a tight Garnett contest, Pierce missed one of two free throws, and then the Novak substitution happened.
If you revisit the list of plays I just created, you’ll see that neither Anthony or Stoudemire took a shot in the final minute for New York. The Celtics were quite set on making other players hurt them; though Tyson Chandler found a few easy looks in the fourth quarter, New York’s fourth and fifth options could not take advantage of their opportunities.
The most important takeaway from Boston’s win? The regular season seems to matter again to the Beantown Boys. The Celtics are playing with playoff intensity on a nightly basis. They are thriving even when they don’t bring their finest jump shots. They beat the Knicks due to a simple mix of hard work and good fortune — luck had something to do with it, but mostly, the Celtics created their own luck. A few of the C’s (I’m looking at you, Wilcox) should have some nice floor burns to show for their efforts.
Rajon Rondo lacked offensive aggression and dropped a few passes. I could be projecting, but it looked like his wrist still bothered him, at least slightly. Yet there he was, bouncing around like a pinball, stealing the ball from Shumpert on the baseline and forcing a foul in the resulting skirmish. There he was, swooping underneath Fields, perhaps knocking the ball of Fields’ hand (or perhaps receiving a golden gift from the referees). Either way, bad call or not, the extra possession ended with a Ray Allen made three and a D’Antoni technical foul.
A little while later, Pierce hit a miracle three-pointer at or after the shot clock buzzer which would have given Boston a four-point lead with 16 seconds left. The refs convened and decided the shot did not count; it must have been touching Pierce’s fingernails when the shot clock ran out. Pierce was not particularly taken to the decision to wave off his shot:
But the game came down to what it rightfully should have — New York was given two chances to win the game while Boston dug its toes into the parquet floor. Sixteen seconds later, the Celtics had preserved a victory they had not just earned, but fought for.