A year ago, in Games 1 and 2, the scores were Boston 85, Miami 76, and Boston 106, Miami 77. The Celtics were a plus-38. The developing sentiment was that the Celtics flipped a switch and turned it on for the playoffs, a theory proven when the Celtics rather methodically marched through Miami, Cleveland and Orlando en route to the NBA Finals.
Now the Celtics are up 2-0 in their first-round series against the New York Knicks, and the questions remain: are they good enough? Is anyone really convinced? Even Doc Rivers sounded a little uncertain in the wake of the Celtics’ 96-93 victory over the New York Knicks last night, a game that was far closer than the final score suggests.
“We won the game,” Rivers told reporters, sounding almost ashamed. “In the playoffs, the whole key is to win games, and that’s what we did.”
So why, then, does it feel as if the Celtics are being exposed in this series more than their brilliance is being revealed?
Yes, a win is a win is a win. Or is it? The Knicks began last night’s game without Chauncey Billups. They finished it out without Billups and Amar’e Stoudamire, the latter departing with back spasms and and playing just 18 minutes. And even then, the Knicks held a 93-92 lead with 19.2 seconds left, the second time in two games that New York has held an advantage with just seconds remaining on the clock.
Maybe you feel good about this, but there are some of us who don’t. Quite simply, this series shouldn’t be this hard. And it certainly shouldn’t be so challenging against Carmelo Anthony and four guys, at home, just as it wasn’t terribly challenging against Dwyane Wade and four guys in the first round a year ago.
Those Celtics played possum during the regular season. With this group, we can’t be so sure. And that is especially true following a game in which Rajon Rondo took a career-high 23 shots, making 13 (56.5 percent) while finishing with 30 points and seven assists.
Rondo went to the basket in this game, which is usually the first key to a Celtics team that often struggles in the halfcourt game. And yet, Boston’s deficiencies still took this game to the final seconds, something that is as important to remember as the 42 points, 17 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks totaled by the otherworldly Anthony.
The bench stinks, folks. Nenad Krstic got on the floor for precisely 2 minutes 59 seconds last night and had donuts across the board. In exactly 12:12, Jeff Green shot 2 of 8 from the floor and finished with nearly as many fouls (five) as points (six). Glen Davis took three shots, none from beyond four feet, as if he were chastised for shooting too much … or trying to make to make a point … or both.
But hey, did you hear? Shaquille O’Neal might be back soon.
Oh, right, the rebounding. Did we mention that the Knicks were one of the worst rebounding teams in the league during the regular season? And that was with Stoudemire, who led the team with 8.2 boards per game. Last night, the final rebounding numbers were New York 53, Boston 37, a complete reversal from Game 1. And while much of that difference came when Kevin Garnett was off the floor – the Knicks outrebounded the Celtics 18-6 and played handball against the offensive glass while Garnett sat – the Celtics must find someone, anyone, willing to at least help in limiting those maddening second-chance points.
The good news, meanwhile, is that the Celtics are executing in crunch time, at least offensively, thanks largely to the continued ingenuity of their coach. As clutch as Ray Allen was at the end of Game 1, the diagramed alley-oop to Garnett trimmed a three-point deficit to one point while taking a mere half-second off the clock. Last night, while everyone assumed the ball would be going to Allen, Rondo or Paul Pierce, Rivers called for a low-post entry to Garnett, who promptly flipped a jump hook over the head Jared Jeffries, even if the Celtics did leave far too much time on the clock.
Of course, it is certainly worth noting that the current NBA postseason is off to a rather compelling start, if for no other reason than the fact that the large majority of first-round games suggest a level of parity that generally does not exist in the league. The Lakers lost Game 1 at home to New Orleans. The Spurs did the same against Memphis. The Chicago Bulls, top-seeded in the Eastern Conference, have labored against the Indiana Pacers. And the Oklahoma City Thunder – despite the addition of alleged secret weapon Kendrick Perkins – had to grind out a Game 1 victory at home against the Denver Nuggets.
In the NBA this spring, it seems, there are no sure things.
But if that is true for a questionable Celtics team now – one that Rivers himself has called “lucky” – what will that mean for Boston in subsequent rounds?
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