Let’s begin by stating the obvious: the Celtics as constructed are not title contenders. Lacking a true point guard, let alone one of Rajon Rondo’s caliber, is simply too much of an obstacle to overcome in the playoffs, when the games slow down, teams hone in on each other’s weaknesses and execution in the half court is paramount. The real question after a pair of losses in New York – highlighted by two of the most unsightly second halves in Celtics playoff history – is whether Boston can make the Knicks sweat by clawing their way back into this series.
First, it’s worth taking a quick look back at Games 1 and 2, which on the surface were virtual facsimiles of one another. In each contest, the Celtics played well in the first half, getting into their sets and moving the ball on offense, forcing the Knicks into contested jump shots on defense and getting out in transition when the opportunity presented itself. Then as if flipping a switch in the locker room, the Knicks came out in the second half of each game and throttled the Celtics, holding Boston to 25 and 23 points, respectively. That, however, is where the similarities end. In Game 1, the Celtics were their own worst enemy, giving the ball away 20 times, including eight turnovers in 20 fourth-quarter possessions. That ratio is staggering, and while some of the gaffes can be attributed to the Rondo void, most of them were a result of plain old carelessness.
For Game 2, Doc Rivers made no secret that his rotation would be altered (more bigs, as opposed to the three-guard bench he featured in Game 1 that totaled all of zero field goals) and the game plan would be different (establish Kevin Garnett, feature Kevin Garnett and sprinkle in some more Kevin Garnett).
Unfortunately, that game plan never came to fruition thanks to a pair of early, questionable fouls on Garnett. To be fair, the refs pretty much did the opposite of swallowing their whistles on both sides throughout most of the first half, but Garnett’s absence and the ripple effect it had on everything the Celtics were trying to do can’t be overstated. Even when he did get back on the floor, Garnett was out of sync and unable to steer clear of further foul trouble. Without KG, the Celtics had no way to collapse the Knicks defense and open up space on the perimeter. And on the defensive end, a foul-conscious Garnett was rendered a shell of himself in his primary duty of protecting the paint and helping on rotations.
To sum it up, the Celtics beat themselves in Game 1 and were thwarted from having a real shot in Game 2. There’s no denying the Knicks are the better team and boast the best player in the series in Carmelo Anthony. The added presence of playoff-hardened veterans like Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin has also payed early dividends for New York. But two games to the home team do not a series make (see: Eastern Conference finals, 2012).
Heading to Boston for Games 3 and 4, the Knicks are saying all the right things, that all they’ve done is hold serve on their floor, which was expected. But the reality is they have no idea what they’re about to be confronted by when they step foot in TD Garden on Friday night. That’s not a dig on the Knicks. There’s a reason that of the five playoff series the Celtics have lost in this era, only one has been in fewer than seven games. They are a different team in their building. It’s a combination of the 17 banners hanging overhead, the legends sitting courtside, the swagger of the crowd and the emotion that literally pours out of Garnett. As a concoction, it’s damned near impossible for opponents to overcome.
With all that said, there is no precedent for the atmosphere that will consume the Garden on Friday. The lights over the parquet have been off since the Marathon attacks, the city beginning a healing process that will span far longer than any one season or playoff series.
Boston is a town whose story is chronicled through its sports. The narratives of the people, teams and athletes are all woven together, inextricably linked as a result of their unique closeness. The bond between the Celtics and the city has always been an especially powerful one, marked by triumph and tragedy alike.
In the wake of the attacks and with the Celtics watching from afar, the city started to pick itself up through what it knows best: sports. The Red Sox returned to Fenway Park. The Bruins re-christened the home they share with their basketball counterparts. The Marathon will run again. Now it is the Celtics’ turn.
They are no longer the perennial favorites who used to annually send LeBron James and Dwyane Wade home steaming, nor the aging, stubborn contenders who continued to assert their will over everyone but the now-unified pair. The Celtics won’t hang a banner this year. Odds are they won’t make it out of the first round for the first time since Garnett’s arrival. But to think they are about to fold in the face of adversity and go out without a whimper, in their house, is to gravely underestimate the spirit of this team and its proud leaders.
Like Boston itself, you either know it or you don’t.