The Knicks’ Most Important Win in a Decade
Prior to the start of Game 2 on Tuesday night, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked about his team’s chances evening the series at 1-1 by stealing a game inside MSG. Rivers cracked a smiled as he reflected back on the championship pride the Celtics had exhibited on the road in years past. “It was almost like they WANTED to play on the road…” Rivers told reporters. He described how those great Celtic teams cherished those opportunities and, more often than not, rose to the challenge in those situations.
Coming into Friday night, the New York Knickerbockers hadn’t won a single road playoff game since April 29th, 2001. Yes, the last time New York won a postseason game away from Madison Square Garden, Bill Clinton was still in office.
In the first two years following Melo’s arrival, the Knicks had taken baby steps, advancing to the postseason two years in row but losing eight of the nine games they played. This year’s edition is clearly the best team the Knicks have fielded in long time, as evidenced by their capturing of the Atlantic Division crown (for the first time since 1994) and securing the number two over seed in the East; and further proven by their relatively easy wins in the first two games of their first round series against the Celtics.
However, the Knicks faced the stiffest challenge of their season on Friday night, when they headed up to Boston to take on the Celtics in front of nearly 19,000 fired up fans in an emotionally-charged TD Garden.
New York’s response was a resounding success, as their played one of their more complete, well-rounded games of the season – crushing the Celtics 90-76. Considering the environment in which the game was played, and lack of important postseason contests this team has been involved in of late, this victory was arguably the franchise’s most impressive and important win in well over a decade.
After falling behind early, and actually trailing at halftime of the first two games in this series, the Knicks jumped on the Celtics right from the opening tip in Game 3. The Knicks built up a 16 point lead by the end of the second quarter, and cruised home in the second half. The story of the night for the Knicks – and the story of this series, for that matter – has been New York’s defense. Despite averaging just 87 points per game, the Knicks have won each game rather handily because they have completely stifled the C’s. In fact, the Celtics offensive futility has been historic.
Since the introduction of the shot clock in 1954, the Boston Celtics have played 4,718 regular season games. They have also participated in another 574 playoff games. Never before in their storied history had they been held to 78 points or less in three straight contests. Yet, that is exactly what has happened over the first three games of this first-round series against the Knicks.
In fact, per the Elias Sports Bureau, this is only the second time that an NBA team has won the first three games of a playoff series, holding the opposition below 80 points in each game, during the shot clock era. In the spring of 1997, the Jordan-and-Pippen Bulls held the Heat below 80 points while taking a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Chicago won that series in five games, then went on to defeat Utah in six to earn their fifth of what would be six NBA championships in the Jordan Era.)
And of the three wins the Knicks have tallied in this series, Game 3 carries the most weight. Not only because of how well the Knicks played from start to finish, but because of where the game took place.
The Knicks have proven that they can protect MSG; since Woodson was named head coach in the middle of last season, New York is 41-11 inside Madison Square Garden. In fact, New York hasn’t lost a home game since March 7th – reeling off 12 straight home wins. Moreover, they’ve lost a total of just two home games since the All-Star break; and those two losses game against the teams with the two best records in the league (Miami and OKC).
Still, once the playoffs arrive, good teams win at home, while great teams find a way to win games on the road. This is something New York has struggled with, despite their recent resurgence.
For a large chunk of the 2012-13 season, the Knicks wilted against stiff competition when they left the comfy confines of MSG. In fact, for more than three months – from December 12th through March 17th to be exact – the Knicks didn’t notch a single road victory against a team with a record above .500. However, towards the end of the regular season, during their impressive 13-game winning streak, they knocked off some top teams in their building, including beating the Heat in Miami and the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
Encouragingly for Knick fans, New York was able to carry that success into the postseason. Yes, the Celtics are severely undermanned playing with their star point guard, Rajon Rondo. However, Boston still has two (albeit aging) hall-of-famers on the floor, along with a great coach. Most importantly, they are a veteran team that has played in a ton of big games and possesses an immense amount of pride. Game 3 was an absolute “must win” for Boston, as everyone was well aware.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mike Woodson wanted his team to take the same intense approach. Woodson reportedly told his team to treat Friday’s game as if it was a Game 7. His troops responded accordingly, dominating action throughout the night. Not only were they the better team, they played harder, seemed hungrier, and were more aggressive throughout the evening. It appeared as if the Knicks were the desperate team. In Game 4 on Sunday, New York will have a chance to accomplish another difficult feat – closing out a team in their own building.
If the Knicks truly want to be considered legit contenders to the crown, and have aspirations of making a deep run this postseason, they will need to show they can enter a hostile arena and walk away with a win. And the opponents will only get tougher.
However, based on the way the Knicks passed their first road test with flying colors, there is undeniably reason for tremendous optimism in NYC.