It took a near record-setting collapse in the fourth quarter to wake them up, but the Knicks finally exorcised their playoff demons by eliminating the Celtics with an 88-80 win in Game 6 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The near botching by the Knicks was apropos considering nothing came easy for the team this series, not even when they built a seemingly comfortable 3-0 series lead. But in the end, New York did just enough to hold off the hard-charging Celtics. Boston was down by as many as 26 points in the fourth quarter, but Jeff Green and Avery Bradley did a number on the Knicks’ defense, cutting the deficit to as low as four points.
Green finished with 21 points, but it was Bradley’s ascension that was the most troubling. He scored all of his 10 points in the final stanza after being shut out by Pablo Prigioni for the first three quarters.
Knicks head coach Mike Woodson acknowledged it wasn’t easy, and the huge run caused some angst, but ultimately all that mattered was his veteran team found a way to overcome the Celtics.
“I’m looking at the big picture. It was a helluva series, and I hope our guys learned a lot from this series, [like] it’s never over ‘til it’s over. We were tested, and we needed that, so hopefully it will carry into the second round against the Pacers,” said Woodson. “They hung in there. With playoff basketball, there are always runs. They’re a great team and made a great run. But we just hung in there. ... [Carmelo Anthony] came up big with that big 3-pointer and Iman [Shumpert] made the big steal. They were probably the two biggest plays of the game to give us the cushion.”
The Knicks finally shut the door on the Celtics, as Boston’s comeback attempt fell just short. Anthony had a huge 3-pointer with just over 90 seconds remaining and J.R. Smith had a momentum-killing and-1 bucket and free throw to salt away the game. Anthony finished with 21 points, while Smith added 13 points and seven rebounds.
But the Knicks’ tone was initially set by Prigioni, who had nine points in the first half — all in the opening quarter, and all on 3-pointers. The 35-year-old rookie guard set a career-high by tallying 14 points. He added five rebounds and three assists.
“Guys stayed aggressive. Melo and I always stay aggressive, [but] Ray [Felton], Shump and Pablo stayed aggressive,” Smith said. “Fortunately we had players that stepped up. It was a good test. And Pablo stepped up. He definitely needed to shoot when he was open [because] too many times he’s open and he doesn’t shoot the ball, but this time he shot.”
Prigioni wasn’t the only unsung hero, as his backcourt mate Felton had 11 points, seven assists and two steals. It’s the first time Felton has advanced to the second round. Shumpert, who also advanced to the second round for the first time in his young career, added 17 points (3-of-3 on 3-pointers), six rebounds and three steals — and added a key coast-to-coast steal and layup to finally end the Celtics’ amazing run.
“Everyone did what they had to do to get us out of this series. You need that in the playoffs. Sometimes you don’t know where it’s going to come from, but it’s nice,” Woodson said. “I didn’t know where it’d come from tonight, but Pablo and Iman stepped up big time.”
The man Shumpert was draped all over, Paul Pierce, had a miserable shooting night, going 4-of-18 from the field. Kevin Garnett added 15 points and 10 rebounds in what was possibly the final time the Hall of Fame duo will play together.
The Knicks earned the 4-2 series win on the strength of a stifling defense that never allowed the Celtics to surpass the 100-point mark in any of the six games.
The win was great, as the Knicks advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years — and will face the Pacers on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. in Game 1 — but Woodson said they’re far from reaching their goals.
“I knew it wasn’t over, because you have to play four quarters. But we withstood the run and now it’s on to round two,” said Woodson. “We just made a step tonight, but there’s still a few more steps to go before we get to where we want to be.”
Follow Knicks beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.