NEW YORK – The New York Knicks might be the new kings of the hill on the Atlantic Division playground for now, but the bullying Boston Celtics sent a clear message that if Knicks want to stay where the Celtics have been for the past half-decade, they’ll have to earn it — even if New York’s best player had enough fight in him to stay after class and wait up for Boston’s main intimidator.
Since the start of the year, and for nearly half a season, the Knicks (23-11) have led an Atlantic division which the Celtics (17-17) have won in each of the past five years, but in the teams’ first clash of the season, Boston rattled New York and rallied for 102-96 victory at a sold out Madison Square Garden on Monday night, in a chippy game more befitting of a playoff matchup in the spring than a regular season contest in early January.
Forward Carmelo Anthony (20 points, five assists) was whistled for five personal fouls during a rare off night on which the NBA’s second-leading scorer made just six of 26 shots from the floor, including just two of 14 from inside the three-point line, as center Kevin Garnett (19 points, 10 rebounds) did what he does best — getting inside the head an opposing superstar like Anthony to get him off of his game with a physical brand of basketball and a bunch of trash talking.
Garnett irritated Anthony so much that after the two were jawing at each other and received double technical fouls early in the final quarter, Anthony was later screaming at Garnett outside the Celtics’ locker room following the game, and uncharacteristically failed to show up at his own locker for a postgame interview with the media because he was more interested in waiting for Garnett by Boston’s team bus.
“It was like being in the school yard,” one witness to the incident said.
All of that chaos ensued long after star forward Paul Pierce led Boston with 23 points and six assists, despite going scoreless in the first and third quarters. Pierce, like Anthony, committed five fouls, as the two stars were each called for a pair of fouls within the first 4:33 of the game.
Pierce responded to his second personal foul by picking up the first of four technical fouls called in the game, but he ultimately held the Knicks off with a few clutch jumpers down the stretch, including one dagger that was followed with a mocking goodbye kiss to the Garden crowd.
Anthony meanwhile, a legitimate MVP candidate to this point in the season, and the league’s best first-quarter scorer, failed to get a basket in the opening frame while managing just a single point on two field goal attempts, as Boston took a 22-21 lead into the second period.
“In my eyes and in a lot of people’s eyes, [Anthony is] probably the Most Valuable Player in the league right now,” said Pierce. “For us to play him that tough tonight was great work… I think we got into his body and we didn’t give him a lot of space. When he got into the paint, we tried to send another man at him. We tried to give him different looks from a zone, [and we] put a bigger guy on him all night long.”
As the only Celtic to score over the first seven minutes, Garnett singlehandedly got Boston out to an 8-7 lead on a couple of free throws 4:19 into the game. But, forward Amar’e Stoudemire (13 points in a season-high 28 minutes in just his third game of the season coming off of knee surgery) scored four points to cap an 11-0 run that gave New York its biggest lead, 18-8, nearly 2½ minutes later.
Boston answered with the next seven points though, with the last four coming from reserve forward Jeff Green (16 points, six rebounds).
An Anthony three-pointer midway through the second quarter broke a tie and ignited a 9-2 run that gave New York a 47-38 edge before consecutive three-pointers from Pierce and Green trimmed an eight-point Knicks lead to just 53-51.
A bank shot by point guard Avery Bradley (13 points, five assists, one turnover, five fouls in his third game of the season following surgery on both shoulders) beat the halftime buzzer and kept the Celtics within 56-53 at the break.
Normally a defensive specialist who has significantly helped Boston lift its defense during the Celtics’ three-game winning streak, Bradley (6-for-11 from the field) surprised offensively and added to Green’s solid shooting (5-for-10 from the floor) while running the offense well in the absence of star point guard Rajon Rondo, who missed the game while serving a one-game suspension for bumping an official in Boston’s previous game. Even without Rondo’s league-leading 11.3 assists per game, the Celtics had an impressive assists (26) on two-thirds of their baskets (39).
And, as much as Anthony’s atypical offensive struggles and the expected star-power production from Pierce (10-for-18 from the field) and Garnett (6-for-11 from the floor) hurt New York, the Knicks were done in most by the hot shooting of Boston’s role players, who didn’t shoot much yet were very efficient in helping the Celtics shoot a healthy 52.7 percent in 74 attempts from the floor.
Further complimenting the contributions of Bradley and Green, three others combined to make nine of 11 field goal attempts, as rookie forward Jared Sullinger (10 points) made three of five shots from the field while forwards Leandro Barbosa (eight points) and Brandon Bass (six points) each shots three times from the floor without a miss.
In contrast, New York took had two more field goal attempts but made eight fewer than Boston, to finish just 40.8 percent, including just 26.7 percent (four of 15) from three-point range in the second half after the Knicks were a sizzling 10 of 17 from that distance in the first half.
Seven straight points gave the Celtics a 74-68 lead with a minute to go in the third quarter before a Sullinger putback beat the third period buzzer to put Boston up 76-72.
A loose ball foul on Garnett with 10:24 left in the final quarter and the Celtics up 82-74 escalated the pugnacious play between he and Anthony to another level.
The foul was actually a bear hug from Garnett, even though he unsuccessfully and even comically tried to convince the officials on the floor that he was simply boxing out.
After Stoudemire sank two free throws, Anthony drained consecutive three-pointers to cap an 8-0 spurt and bring the Knicks to within 82-81.
In between those threes however, Garnett and Anthony traded a series of pushes and shoves with no foul called as Garnett tried to post up on the left blocks. Garnett was so focused on that exchange that he lost his focus and accidentally ran into Sullinger, causing Sullinger to lose the ball out of bounds.
As that was happening, Garnett threw a subtle elbow in Stoudemire’s direction, which Anthony saw and reacted to immediately. Anthony stayed in Garnett’s face and yelled at him as the two moved from the foul line and across mid court at which point each player received a technical foul.
The ratcheted early season intensity between the two rivals didn’t surprise Stoudemire, who also cautioned that the Knicks needs to handle that type of situation better, going forward.
“The games [against Boston] are always going to be chippy,” he said. “There’s a lot of talk back and forth and that is to be expected. This is the first of four games against them this season, so we’ll expect the next one to be just as aggressive and chippy. We just need to make sure that we keep our composure.”
Guard Jason Kidd (eight points, six assists, three turnovers) provided the 13th and final tie of the game on a three-pointer that evened the score, 86-86, with 6:41 left in the game, before a fast break dunk by Pierce just 38 seconds later put the Celtics ahead to stay, 88-86.
Two Stoudemire free throws kept New York within a point, but a jumper by Pierce extended Boston’s edge to 94-91 with 3½ minutes to play, and the Knicks could get no closer.
With the Celtics clinging to a 98-94 lead, Pierce hit a trademark step-back jumper on the left wing with 45.5 seconds remaining, over center Tyson Chandler (13 points, game-high 17 rebounds) and in front of celebrity ultra-Knick fan Spike Lee, who moments earlier, stood up from his front row seat and yelled at Pierce. The two later exchanged cordial pats on each other’s backs.
Trailing by what became the final margin, Anthony, who misfired on his last four field goal attempts, came up empty on a three-pointer with 17.9 seconds to go, and reserve guard J.R. Smith (team-high 24 points and 11 stitches to close a deep cut above his right eye after accidentally banging heads with Bradley on a drive with 1:09 left) missed another trey with 12.9 seconds left to end New York’s chances.
Although the Celtics, who were just 6-11 on the road, remained in third place in the Atlantic, they moved to within a half-dozen games of the Knicks for division supremacy and climbed back to .500 for the first time since a December 27th road loss to the Los Angeles Clippers started a season-high four-game losing streak that left Boston a season-low three games under the break-even mark.
The Knicks’ modest two-game win streak ended as they continued their recent struggles at MSG, where they’ve lost four of their past seven games following an NBA-best ten-game winning streak at the start of their home schedule.
“I am concerned about our home court dominance,” said head coach Mike Woodson. “We have to win our games at home. I said that walking out of the locker room, we can’t lose [too many] games at home if we want to accomplish our goal of winning this division.”
The schedule won’t do New York any favors in that regard, with two more conference rivals up next. On Thursday night, the Knicks will travel to Indiana (16-12), which has won 10 of its past 13 games and is 12-5 since a 10-point loss at the Garden in the teams’ lone meeting of the season.
One night later, New York will host Chicago (19-13), winners of three straight games and four of its past five contests after beating the Knicks once each, at home and on the road, within a two-week span last month.
As in New York’s first game against Boston and in its last game against Chicago, sparks could similarly fly in Friday night’s game since the Bulls’ four-point win (after leading by 25 points) at MSG on December 21st featured 50 personal fouls, nine technical fouls and four ejections, including Woodson an Anthony being tossed in the final quarter.
Moments after that game, Anthony, well aware of his team’s schedule several games in advance, right away pointed to the next time Chicago would visit New York, saying the Knicks would be ready. But, time will tell if New York can continue to navigate through that and other rough stretches ahead, and keep their footing on top of that Atlantic hill.