The last seven minutes of this game have to stand with Boston’s very best stretches of the season. The Celtics held the Knicks to 4 points, and none in the final 3:20 to win their 50th game of the season.
But the superb stretch of ‘we’re not that $*#&@ tired, we’re not that $*#&@ injured, we’re just about ready for the $*#&@ playoffs’ basketball was in progress earlier in the game.
You could feel the breakout coming.
The Celtics exited the first quarter down 25-22, and the first half 51-37, in part because Boston struggled to find anyone to guard Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire one-on-one, but mostly because (again) the Celtics couldn’t score.
But there were some positive signs. The offense was generating plenty of good looks, which is usually a harbinger of victory. The first-half Celtics missed a number of comfort-zone shots (KG got good position whenever he wanted it in this game) and had a few more turned away at the rim by an active Rony Turiaf (4 blocks).
In the third quarter, the Celtics ran relentlessly off defensive stops, which was only possible because Rajon Rondo, who you may remember from the first 60 games of the season, pushed tempo off nearly every miss. As much as Rondo’s flaws were on display the last few games — the passivity, the periodic bouts of defensive indifference, the failure to attack the rim, the indecision leading to lazy late-clock jumpers — his offensive genius was splattered all over the second half as he diced up the Knicks’ defense, outworked blue jerseys for offense rebounds, and finished creatively at the rim.
The rest of the Celtics joined him on the break, filling lanes for layups (Ray Allen) and serious dunks (Kevin Garnett), the latter of which you can and should watch again right now:
The Celtics finished with 18 fast break points on the night but that number doesn’t accurately describe how much pressure they applied to the New York defense, even when the Knicks did get back in transition (side note: that’s sort of the problem with fast break points as a stat. If Garnett ends up defended in the post by, say, Toney Douglas because the Knicks lost their men scrambling back in transition, and Garnett backs him down and scores, the Celtics get no credit for that on the fast break scorecard. But that mismatch was created by attacking in transition).
THE FINAL SEVEN
After that, it was wipeout city. The Celtics went from 9 points down to 10 points up by the final buzzer.
Paul Pierce joined Rondo in leading the offensive charge down the stretch.
The captain finally had it going tonight, despite foul trouble that limited him to, uh, 35 minutes. He shot 8-13 for 21 points, 13 of them in the final period. He drove to the basket for a couple free throws, nailed a big transition three to counteract that Billups four-pointer, and hit a 15-foot jumper over Landry Fields when Mike D’Antoni switched ‘Melo off Pierce so he wouldn’t pick up his sixth foul.
But it was the defense that really won the game.
Boston did three things down the stretch that competely shut down the Knicks.
1) They extended their ball pressure on the point guard out above the three-point line, often sending a second man (usually Garnett, who was all over the court) to trap Billups before he could get into a pick and roll or run a set as planned. The Celtics repeatedly forced the Knicks out of what they wanted to do early in the shot clock and left them scrambling to get a good look. It was this kind of pressure on Billups that created the loose ball you see Stoudamire and Garnett fighting over in the photo above.
2) The Celtics overloaded the strong side. Not a new tactic for the Celtics but an effective one against an elite wing scorer like Melo, who Pierce can check, but not entirely stop. Boston either forced Anthony to give the ball up on the wing or frustrated him into forcing up bad shots down the stretch. His only two crunchtime points came off free throws gleaned from an offensive rebound.
And Garnett did just a masterful job denying Stoudamire position, an entry pass into the post or a clean look the few times he did shoot. Thanks to KG’s exemplary work, Stoudamire didn’t score at all in the last seven minutes.
3) As the Knicks searched for offense within broken plays, the Celtics rotated like fiends to shut off second and third options. Have you ever seen a fiend rotate? It’s very impressive. The Celtics moved help defenders in and recovered out to challenge shooters with, as Doc Rivers might say, great energy. The Knicks beat the rotations a couple of times, but the Celtics’ closeouts came in time to force misses.
In summary, it was a thing of beauty to watch the Celtics evolve throughout the game.
Quarter one: they looked like they might stagger their way to another loss.
Quarter four: they looked ready to win the title again.