Mike D’Antoni claims to be an eternal optimist. Boy, did that get tested this week.
The Knicks haven’t played their best game against the Celtics, yet have only lost the first two games of the series by a combined five points. The Celtics have merely held serve on their home floor by barely beating an undermanned Knicks squad that figures to stay shorthanded after Amar’e Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups both sat out Thursday’s practice.
“We’re disappointed but we’re confident we can still get the job done. We’re definitely not having our heads down or whatever,” D’Antoni said. “We think we can get the job done no matter what. It’d be great if those guys can participate but if not we have to win anyway.”
D’Antoni added that despite the injuries to key players, he expects nothing less than great effort and sustained defensive intensity. It’s this newfound concentration on the defensive end that’s allowed the Knicks to stay with the Celtics and D’Antoni believes such passion will be even more prevalent tonight, thanks to the Garden crowd.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere. And we’ll be psyched up. But we just have to guard against having too much adrenaline,” said D’Antoni. “Our guys played hard and as tough as they could’ve played up there I expect the same thing here.”
Stoudemire is listed as questionable and “likely” to play Friday after missing the second half of Game 2 with back spasms, while Billups’s status is a total crapshoot. The playoff savvy point guard strained his left knee on a drive to the basket late in Game 1.
“I’m pretty optimistic. It depends on how he moves, how it feels,” he said of Stoudemire, adding he’d rather see Stoudemire close to 100 percent instead of a shell of himself. “We can’t have him at half-speed, though. We can try him early and if it doesn’t work out we can make a change.”
As for Billups?
“I’m a little bit less optimistic,” D’Antoni said of his point guard. “He has a little bit tougher road to go.”
The third piece to New York’s “Big Three”, Carmelo Anthony, nearly single-handedly carried the Knicks to victory with a performance for the ages. Although he registered 42 points, 17 rebounds, and six assists in Game 2 he’d rather get more help – from anyone.
“I hope they can go but I really don’t know,” Anthony said of Billups and Stoudemire. “But the guys that are playing, we have to keep that same effort and play the same way.”
Anthony added that while his time in Denver prepared him to carry most of the scoring load, he doesn’t think that’s the way to beat an all-around team like the Celtics.
“I think the other guys understood that was a lot for any one person to take on,” Anthony said, referring to his Herculean effort in Game 2. He added he’d rather not shoulder such a load in Game 3 but will if needed. “I just want to do everything I can to try to win the basketball game. I’ll play all 48 [minutes] if I have to. It’s the playoffs now, so you have to leave it all out there every night. If [Stoudemire and Billups] can’t go I’ll have to step up and I can do it all, but at the same time guys have to step up as well because there’s no way I can do it all by myself.”
Stoudemire wasn’t available for comment, as he stayed home in Manhattan to get treatment. Billups was present at the practice facilities but didn’t participate in any workouts. The veteran point guard said he’s been doing everything he can to get back on the floor and it’s now up to modern medicine.
“I feel a little better everyday. There’s no structural damage. But I don’t know [about availability],” Billups said. “They drained some blood and shot the cortisone and now have to wait. There’s nothing more I can do.”
Billups then added he doesn’t even need to be full-strength to help.
“I just want to able to run around there a little bit,” said Billups. “At this point I know I’m not going to be a 100 percent but I don’t need to be 100 percent to come back. I just need to help the team and not hurt the team.”
The fact that the Knicks continue to stick around late against the defending conference champs has given D’Antoni and his team some swagger. D’Antoni even scoffed when told that Celtic head coach Doc Rivers said Boston hasn’t played a full four quarters yet, almost eluding that his team can win not playing their best.
“It’s going to be a challenge. They’re really good,” D’Antoni said of the Celtics. “Our thought process is that they didn’t play well because we didn’t let them play well. That’s going to be our mindset going in and it’s up to them to prove us different. But we feel we can do the job.”
The biggest key, admitted D’Antoni, is slowing down Rajon Rondo. The crafty point guard is coming off a playoff career-high 30 points and seemingly got into the paint at will. D’Antoni said if the Knicks are to win tonight, that can’t happen again.
“We have to get back in transition,” D’Antoni said. “The first game he got to the rim three times all game and [in Game 2] he got to the rim eight times in the first quarter. We just didn’t bust back. But I thought otherwise we played smart and played with heart. Now if we can just hit shots we’ll be OK.
“We feel good about where we are and it should be a great night for us…hopefully.”