The Knicks struck first in what should be a long and drawn out first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, as they held on for an 85-78 win Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Led by Carmelo Anthony’s game-high 36 points, the second-seeded Knicks showed the seventh-seeded Celtics that things won’t be as easy as they were the last time these long-time rivals met in the 2011 playoffs.
Anthony didn’t start off shooting particularly well (9-of-24), but he got hot late and finished 13-of-29 from the field, and was effective enough down the stretch on both ends of the floor, including a key steal in the final two minutes that led to a bucket. He finished with a game-high four steals, and was aided by J.R. Smith’s 15 points and five rebounds, as the Knicks managed to escape. Smith, who has masterfully played the part of Anthony’s sidekick all season, also executed solid defense down the stretch to spark the Knicks, including a couple of steals late as the Celtics were clawing back into the game.
Anthony certainly appreciated the effort of his team, acknowledging how big it was to strike first.
“This was a big game for us to get, [because] it was on our home court,” Anthony said, already trying to temper the frantic expectations of the rabid faithful. “We didn’t do nothing except protect our home court. We have to do the same thing in Game 2.”
Jason Kidd (eight points, five rebounds, three assists, and three steals) played big down the stretch. He didn’t make anyone harken back to his MVP-type seasons during his New Jersey Nets days, but what Kidd did was leave an imprint on the game like only he can at this stage of his career. The 40-year-old guard had a key steal and a big rebound down the stretch, including one theft that set up a clutch 18-foot jumper from Anthony to extend the lead to five with barely 90 seconds remaining.
Head coach Mike Woodson was impressed with the way Kidd made an impact in crunch-time.
“Jason has been doing this all season,” Woodson said. “Loose balls, strips, keeping balls alive. He just always seems to be in the right place at the right time.”
Even Celtics’ head coach Doc Rivers was impressed with Kidd’s imprint.
“He beats everyone with his brain,” Rivers said.
Anthony not only beat the Celtics with his basketball IQ, but like Kidd, he also managed to be in the right place at the right time late in the game when he had a sweet assist to Kenyon Martin for the easy layup. It pushed the lead back up to seven with 41 seconds remaining, essentially salting away the game. It was Martin who gave the Knicks the best chance to win down the stretch with his energy and ability to cash in around the rim against the vaunted defense.
Tyson Chandler’s minutes (20 total) suffered as a result of Martin’s presence, but Woodson said to not read too much into things going forward, as he was merely going with the hot hand.
“Tyson just didn’t have it tonight [and] that’s no knock on him,” Woodson insisted. “He gave us what he had and I just elected to go with Kenyon.”
For his part, Chandler downplayed his uneven performance, and said he “felt great” after the game. The veteran pivot said if anything his conditioning isn’t peak yet, but his malaise had nothing to do with the bulging disk in his neck.
Regardless, a win’s a win and the Knicks will take it, especially since they outperformed the Celtics on the defensive end — something Rivers and Co. typically take great pride in doing themselves. The Knicks as a whole played outstanding defense, even without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year at his peak playing performance yet. Their collective effort was felt particularly in the fourth quarter, as they limited the Celtics to just eight points. Boston only mustered a .415 percent shooting from the field for the game.
The Celtics were led by Jeff Green, who surprisingly led the Celtics with 26 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Green sparked the Celtics from the opening tip, as he notched 20 points and two blocks in the first half.
Paul Pierce, usually the Celtics’ go-to guy, added 21 points on 6-of-15 shooting, as he started the game more as a facilitator — something Celtics’ fans have grown used to seeing without the presence of a true point guard. Pierce, who’s known more for his scoring than dishing, started off by trying to get others involved with six of his team-high seven assists coming in the first half. Avery Bradley added 15 points and three steals in a losing effort.
Things started off very well for Boston as it led 29-26 after one and 53-49 at the half. This was the type of game the Celtics wanted to play because the tempo was slower paced and the buckets hard to come by. Neither team was truly able to form any kind of offensive flow, as the Knicks’ offense was also stymied for most of the game (.405 percent from the field). New York only had two starters score in double figures (Raymond Felton had 13 points), making this defensive-struggle of a win all the more refreshing and confidence boosting for the Knicks.