It was almost too good to be true wasn't it?
Looking for their first Playoff series win in 13 years, the New York Knicks appeared to be in cruise control. After all, no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit and emerged victorious in a seven game series.
However, as every Knicks fan knows, nothing is ever quite that simple.
The Boston Celtics are a team of savvy veterans who realise they don't have many more chances at glory. Their aging stars have perhaps this year and next to add to their ring collection and being 3-0 down in the series was not part of the script. They felt that they had a legitimate chance of taking this Playoff series into it's twilight and it was surprising to see them down down and deflated. With big characters like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce leading the way, that atmosphere was never going to stay around for long. They are born winners, future hall-of-fame inductees and their will to win is legendary. They knew that the odds were stacked against them at 3-0 and that's just the way they like it.
Slowly but surely, they fought their way back.
Every game was now an elimination game for the Celtics and didn't they play like it? There was a much higher sense of urgency in their play in Game 4, something that had been severely lacking in the previous three encounters between the two teams. Boston, helped by their partisan crowd and led by their two stalwarts, found their trademark defense and made shots down the stretch to make sure the Boston fans didn't have to go home having witnessed a Knicks party on their home court. They emerged victorious 97-90 thanks to Pierce, who looked like the kid that played so long ago for the Kansas Jayhawks, turning in a sensational performance. He had 29 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists and smothered NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, making sure he had to work for every basket he got. This was a statement from the Celtics, they weren't going to go down without a fight. It's just not in their nature, this is a team of high character individuals who refuse to be a laughing stock. Every athlete worth his salt has more pride than that. You only have to see how the Lakers capitulation has been received to understand how a series sweep would have been greeted in Boston, especially to their Atlantic Division rivals. It was a small step on the road to recovery but the acid test still remained.
They must defeat the Knicks at the mecca of sports, Madison Square Garden.
Game 5 was something Knicks fans had been hoping for throughout a turbulent twenty years which has seen abject failure and not a single Playoff series win. For a team with the Knicks payroll and fan-base that is inexplicable. The expectant crowd at the Garden on Wednesday night were eager to see history being made and what better team to do it against than the Celtics. They had more cause for optimism as newly-crowned sixth man of the year J.R Smith returned to the lineup after missing game 4 through suspension and it was widely perceived that with his return the Knicks would once again have far too much firepower for the Celtics. Smith himself had stated that if he had played game 4 there would have been no game 5, such was his confidence in his ability to provide the scoring firepower needed to get the job done. He had good reason for this confidence, the Knicks had dominated the Celtics for the majority of this series. Most surprising of all was that they had done it with their defense, holding the Celtics to an average of 75 points a game during the first 3 games of the series. All season long they have bought into Mike Woodson's defense first mentality, something that had been an afterthought for so long in New York. Now they are amongst the elite defensive teams in the entire league and Woodson deserves enormous credit for totally transforming the mindset of players who seemed to be set in their ways. With the addition of Smith and their defensive intensity at home through the first two games, it was widely acknowledged that the Knicks would have more than enough to protect their home court and gain that vital and elusive Playoff series victory.
How wrong we were.
Things started well enough for the Knicks, who soared into an 11-0 lead nearly in the first quarter. That's about as good as it got for the Knicks on another dismal shooting night from one of the hottest teams in the league throughout the season shooting the ball. The Knicks ended the first quarter on a high and led 22-20 at the interval. There was a trepidation throughout the crowd as the knowledgeable New York crowd could sense Boston were about to make a run and turn this series on it's head. They were right, Boston dominated the second quarter and led 45-39 at halftime. The Celtics, knowing their season was on the line, were all over the court. They didn't allow the Knicks to get in any sort of rhythm offensively and it was evident the team from New York were running out of ideas and fast. Jason Terry once again was providing the Celtics with a key contribution off the bench, just as he had done in game 4 in Boston. Terry knows what it takes to win a Championship, having done so with the Dallas Mavericks. He has seen and done it all throughout his NBA career and he knows it is now or never for this team. Next year they will be another year older and the chances of them getting to the promised land would be slimmer. Garnett was also providing the Celtics with a fearsome interior presence that was making any Knick think twice about heading for the rim.
The third was a tight affair and the Celtics were showing tremendous resilience in keeping the Knicks at bay. Anthony, who had been immense throughout the series, finally went cold and struggled with his shot throughout the night. He finished with 22 points but was just 8 of 24 from the field. Anthony seems to resort to his isolation offense when things aren't going his way and appears reluctant to move the Basketball. He is a big believer in his abilities and sometimes trusts his shot too much. If he is having an off-night he will continue to shoot the ball as if he was about to drop 50 and that is what the Knicks don't need. They have other offensive weapons that can pick up the slack for Anthony, something that hasn't been the case in the past. Anthony has shown a willingness throughout this season to be a more efficient scorer but when pressure situations arise he normally reverts to type. A selfish scorer who would rather take a shot himself when he's double-teamed than pass to an open teammate. It's a matter of trust and when push comes to shove Anthony has more trust in his shot than he does in anybody else on the team. Maybe Anthony's persistence was partly due to the struggles of J.R Smith. Smith had an abysmal night shooting the ball. Clearly the game off for elbowing Jason Terry had an effect on his rhythm and he finished with 14 points on an embarrassing 3-14 from the field. Smith has always been renowned for being a streaky scorer and even though the Knicks have seen great improvement in his consistency this season, Smith will need to get this slump out of his mind if he is to get the Knicks into the next round. Maybe if Smith wasn't so foolishly suspended in the first place the talk of a Celtics comeback would have been mute by now.
Regardless of the Knicks struggles they did get it back to 88-83 with 1:09 left in the fourth quarter after the Celtics had led by 15. However, as he's done throughout his career, Kevin Garnett came up with a crucial basket when it mattered most and followed that with two free throws to clinch a vital win for the Celtics in New York. Garnett continues to defy his age and having him back for the Playoffs was absolutely critical for the Celtics chances. There's no doubt he was ready to play towards the end of the season but with the Playoff berth clinched it seemed pointless risking further injury by playing him in a meaningless game. Garnett is not one of those players who needs a couple of games to get his stroke back, never has been and never will be. He is the ultra-competitor, hated by opposition fans as much as he is loved by the Celtics fans, Garnett's work ethic and intensity day-in-day-out are a true testament to the man's character and will to win. K.G finished with 16 points, 18, rebounds and 5 assists whilst being the emotional backbone of this time. Extraordinary really when you consider the man is 36 years old. Garnett will need to continue this fantastic run of form in game 6 if the Celtics are going to take this series back to the Garden for a monumental game 7.
So, as the game drew to a conclusion, the expectant Knicks fans once again went home disappointed, a 92-86 defeat and a feeling that has become all too familiar over the years. This long-suffering fan-base must now be questioning whether the Knicks can get over the line in this series. The momentum has clearly shifted in Bostons favor and the Knicks must galvanize themselves for Friday's game in the TD Garden in what will no doubt be the most hostile environment they have played in all season. All is not lost for the Knicks, they still have two chances to get the victory they need to advance, but their offense must improve dramatically. Not just Carmelo and Smith, the role-players on this team need to stand up and be counted if they want to make a deep run into the post-season. Their bench play was just not good enough last night, combining for just 20 points. That's even more disturbing when you consider 14 of those were from Smith alone. Players like Steve Novak must make better use of their time on the court or they will be in danger of a shocking early exit. Novak was signed to a long term deal due to his three-point shooting prowess but his shot has deserted him and he is suffering from a severe lack of confidence. That is bad enough, but when you consider how inept Novak is on the defensive side of the floor you have to wonder whether Woodson will take him out of the rotation altogether if things don't improve. This is the stage of the season where you can't afford passengers on your team and Novak might be a luxury the Knicks can't afford to have right now.
What is encouraging for the Knicks is the play of Point Guard Raymond Felton. He has been a revelation in this series and seems to be able to score on Avery Bradley at will. He finished last night with 21 points and 6 rebounds and 4 assists on 10-19 shooting, continuing his stellar play in this series. Felton must now take the reigns of this team when Anthony and Smith are struggling. He has been around the league long enough to realise when the tide is turning and as the Point Guard it is his responsibility to dictate proceedings and get the people who are in the best position to score the basketball, rather than just handing the ball off to Anthony and have everyone standing around watching him try and create for himself. That didn't work in Denver and it won't work in this series either. The Knicks made a smart move when they brought Felton back into the fold at the expense of Jeremy Lin and now Felton has proved himself to the coaching staff they must give him more responsibility in critical situations.
That's not to say Anthony won't improve. He has had a phenomenal year which has seen him claim the scoring title and finally be recognised as one of the top three players in the league. However, Anthony is so driven it almost blinds him as he strives to succeed. It will again be up to Woodson to calm him and get him focused on the team dynamic once more. Woodson has done a sensational job with this group and it wasn't luck that they got into the second seed. So now, when things look like they may be unraveling, it is up to Woodson to hold this team together. He will look to the seasoned campaigners for help, players that have the rings to show for their efforts and know just how much sacrifice is needed to attain them, in particular Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd. Chandler hasn't looked himself in this series, clearly feeling the effects of the injury that sidelined him for the latter part of the season. Guarding Garnett has proved difficult for him and what's even more baffling is his struggles against Garnett on the boards. Chandler is widely considered one of the top three defensive rebounders in the entire NBA but he seems to have lost the spring in his step following his injury. It is imperative that he contains Garnett in the game in Boston, there is no doubt that he will get the crowd to fever-pitch beforehand and this will only motivate him further. He must do a better job of boxing out Garnett in the key and follow him out to the mid-range area where Garnett is so lethal. If he can do this, then the Knicks will be in the best position possible to snatch the victory.
Iman Shumpert also has a big part to play in game 6. Shumpert has the unenviable task of guarding Paul Pierce and all-in-all has done a relatively good job on the multiple all-star. Friday's game will be his toughest test yet. Pierce will no doubt be looking to continue his strong scoring run at home and force the Knicks into a nervy game 7. Shumpert has been progressing gradually throughout the season after a serious knee injury and the Knicks have done a masterful job of managing his minutes to avoid further complications. Friday's situation may be a little different though, with Pierce likely to play most of, if not all of the 48 minutes, can Shumpert be counted on to lock Pierce down for the entirety of that time? it will be a severe strain, Shumpert is currently on about 30 minutes a night and a big increase in time may have a detrimental effect on his overall play. Trouble is the Knicks don't really have anybody else that can guard Pierce consistently. If Kidd or maybe Quentin Richardson can guard Pierce for a short period and give Shumpert a rest then the better the Knicks' chances will be. The last thing the Knicks need is there best perimeter defender getting injured during the most crucial part of the season. Shumpert is a big part of the Knicks future down the road and any further knee complications could have a serious effect on his career.
Perhaps took the Celtics too lightly after their three wins, which was a huge mistake. They should have grabbed the bull by the horns and taken advantage of a situation many didn't envisage prior to the series beginning. Case in point, as little as it may have been, was their uniform choice for the game at the Garden on Tuesday. The Knicks opted for their black uniforms to symbolise a 'funeral' for the Celtics, an arrogant move that was sure to have angered those in the away locker room. There has been bad blood between these teams throughout the season and it spilled over following this game too between Jordan Crawford and Raymond Felton. It may have taken five games, but the Celtics seem to have finally got under the skin of the New York Knicks. They have them rattled and few would now bet against them taking this series into a seventh game. As Smith himself said afterwards 'We prepared for a funeral but ended up getting buried'.
They aren't quite in the coffin yet, but another poor display will have them questioning whether or not they can get the series win this city is craving.
Adjustments need to be made, and it will be fascinating to see the outcome. One thing is for sure, there is no middle ground. It's either adulation or humiliation.
Standard procedure for the city of New York.
Dean Jones: Follow me on Twitter @DeanJones_