NEW YORK — The Celtics were despondent after their 85-78 loss to the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first-round series, and they should have been. Their second-half execution was deplorable, ruining a brilliant defensive performance that turned the Knicks into exactly what the Celtics wanted — a one-man team led by Carmelo Anthony dribbling, dribbling more, and finally shooting.
Anthony attempted 35 percent of New York’s shots in the second half and the rest of the Knicks were 7 for 26 from the field after the break, the perfect recipe for a Celtics upset. But Boston also melted in the heat of the moment Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
Besides Paul Pierce, who scored 11 points in the final two quarters, the Celtics shot 4 for 19, for 14 points, after halftime. This column will give you a few moments to sip some Pepto-Bismol as the second-half rundown continues.
A 4-point halftime lead was wasted, built back up to 7 at 70-63, and then the collapse began. The Knicks were primed for their usual playoff shrinkage but the Celtics were unable to execute. They couldn’t even get the ball up the court without upheaval as the Knicks intelligently read passing lanes or just stripped the ball when the Celtics got close to the basket.
And as each possession grew more significant, the Celtics had no one who responded to the occasion. They held the Knicks 15 points below their season average, equaled New York on the boards, forced J.R. Smith into 7-for-19 shooting, and held the starting trio of Tyson Chandler, Chris Copeland, and Iman Shumpert to 3 points.
And yet the Celtics lost.
In the fourth quarter they kept repeating the same mistakes, such as Avery Bradley attempting lazy lob passes that Vince Wilfork could have intercepted, or Pierce skidding bounce passes when doubled, or Jeff Green refusing to grip the ball tightly when attacking the basket.
It was disheartening because the Celtics were well-prepared. Doc Rivers outcoached Mike Woodson for a majority of the game and gave his players the opportunity to seize the moment, and they responded by inexplicably playing like playoff neophytes.
“Playing on the road, playing a really good team that’s energized, you don’t give yourself a chance to win like that,” forward Kevin Garnett said. “I thought defensively we were sound. We did a lot of good things. I thought our defense was better than our offense tonight. We couldn’t put the ball in the basket. We gotta score the basketball. We gotta put the ball in the hole somehow.”
We saw what Rivers was talking about in terms of a shortened playoff rotation. Eight players got minutes for the Celtics and there was no backup center to Garnett. The bench scored 4 points, all on Courtney Lee free throws, and the reserves brought no energy. Jordan Crawford, in his first playoff appearance, did not attempt a shot in 10 minutes, which is inconceivable.
Lee continued to miss open looks and pass up others. Jason Terry, meanwhile, who promised to return to being “Jet” after an underachieving regular season, missed all five shots and several defensive assignments. He was brought to Boston to excel in the playoffs, drain critical 3-pointers, and add spark, and he did none of those things Saturday.
Teams are barely defending Terry now, allowing him to shoot open 3-pointers, a no-no five years ago. The disrespect is apparent. And Terry, as he has done all season, admitted his shortcomings and promised atonement, but will he get the opportunity? Perhaps the bigger, more athletic, and younger Terrence Williams will see the floor in Game 2.
Rivers will have to make some decisions and quickly. He can’t allow Terry to spend three games finding himself. The starters were adequate, save an unusually high turnover game from Bradley (four) and missed shots from Pierce and Garnett.
But with no bench support and a stifling New York defense, the Celtics wilted. Team president Danny Ainge scrambled in the offseason and before the trade deadline to gather help for the aging veterans, and they produced nothing Saturday. And that has been a consistent issue.
“Our bench has to give us something,” Rivers said. “Jet obviously didn’t have a lot tonight. We had our stretches. I think Jordan Crawford is going to give us more and he didn’t because we didn’t play him enough. I don’t think we lost our composure. We lost our way on the floor as far as playing. I thought emotionally we were pretty good, to be honest. We just stopped playing the right way. I thought each guy was trying to win and I guess that’s emotion. I don’t think that’s hard to fix.”
A combination of fatigue, putrid decision-making, and too much reliance on the starters cost the Celtics a chance to steal Game 1 and make a statement. They had every right to be disheartened because they succumbed to the enormity of the moment and that is not characteristic of the Celtics.
“When the fourth quarter comes, this is when we all have to be on the same page,” Pierce said. “The games are too big at this point for us not to be at that point. We know the things we did that cost us the game tonight. We’re down, 1-0, there’s nothing we can do about it. Obviously these games are frustrating when you have the opportunity right there in your hand.”