Despite a disappointing overtime loss in Boston yesterday (97-90), the Knicks are in firm control of their first round matchup with Boston after winning the first three games of the series (85-78, 87-71 and 90-76). In the first three games the Knicks served the Celtics a big helping of Melo with JR Smith and Raymond Felton on the side, continuing the hot streak on which they ended the regular season. The Celtics looked old, overmatched and on the way out of the playoffs. Sunday was to be a formality, another Knick win that would end the Celtics' season.
That is, until, this happened:
With the Knicks up 78-59 and 7:06 left in the fourth quarter, JR Smith, the Knicks' second-leading scorer, elbowed Jason Terry, thus far a non-factor in the series and got himself ejected. It seemed the refs ejected Smith in an abundance of caution: with the game basically decided, why keep Smith out there and risk an escalating situation. But the league thought otherwise and suspended Smith for game four.
Without Smith's offensive production the Knick offense sputtered in the first half against Boston in game four, managing just 35 points and leaving them down 19 at the break. And even though Raymond Felton led the Knick offense on a furious second half comeback, Anthony struggled with his shot all game long, scoring 36 points but going just 10-35 (26%), turning the ball over seven times and missing two key free throws with 1:50 left and the game tied at 82. Not only that, the elbow woke up Terry, who outscored the Knicks by himself in overtime (9-7) and had a strong eighteen points off the bench.
What Went Right This Week: The Knicks' defense has been very good all series, holding the Celtics to an average of an average of 78.5 points per, even with Tyson Chandler at less than full strength. The Knicks held the Celtics to just 25 points in the second half of game one (and just eight in the fourth quarter!) as the Knicks took control of the game. The Knicks then held the Celtics to just 23 points in the second half of game two. Charles Oakley would be proud.
The Knick defense has been the product of effort, effectively rotating to open shooters and the convenient fact that the Celtics don't score very well. Getting a strong performance from Raymond Felton against Paul Pierce (eighteen points, 8-19 shooting) in game two didn't hurt either.
The occasional shot-toss from Kenyon Martin doesn't hurt either.
Kenyon also wasn't willing to find out if Jason Terry can still dunk.
Until his messy performance in game four, Carmelo Anthony was playing very well, averaging 32 points on 46% shooting from the field, 50% shooting from three and 94% from the line. It didn't matter which defender the Celtics threw at him, he scored at will. Melo even hit Kenyon Martin with a game-sealing pass at the end of game one.
Iman Shumpert had a strong week, making two huge threes to bring the Knicks back from down six to start the third quarter in game two. His hands have been active, bothering the Celtics backcourt and he came up with two steals during the Knicks' big comeback in game four, one of which led to a breakaway layup. Shump came up with twelve rebounds and made some big shots in the second half of that one, including a couple of jumpers off the dribble, hardly his specialty. He finished with twelve points on 5-13 shooting.
Pablo Prigioni, back in the starting lineup after missing game one with a sprained ankle, hasn't been putting up gaudy numbers, but he never does. Still, he's been his usual self, quietly moving the ball and settling the offense when need be. And he's still a pest: four steals in game two and five in game three contributed to easy Knick wins. Don't forget the Knicks are 18-3 since putting him in the starting lineup.
Before his suspension, JR Smith did a few things of his own, throwing one down on Jeff Green in game one.
And, after receiving the NBA's Sixth Man award, Smith did this in game two:
That's a step-back jumper, a forced turnover and, yes, a buzzer beater, all in fifteen seconds.
Last but not least, even though it's clear that Mike Woodson has a lot more talent at his disposal than Doc Rivers does, Woodson is getting the better of the coaching battle. The Knicks have killed the Celtics in the second half of each game, coming back from deficits of four, six and nineteen points (they led by seventeen at the half in game three and didn't look back, never up less than double digits after the break). It would certainly be better for the Knicks to take leads into halftime, but Woodson's adjustments have clearly worked and are a big part of why the Knicks are in control of this series.
What Went Wrong This Week: The Knicks came close to sweeping the Celtics and failed, which isn't a good thing. If a rotation player gets hurt in game five, losing game four will become a very big deal. Fewer games mean fewer injuries and for a team as brittle as the Knicks it's important that they play as little as possible.
Tyson Chandler has shown flashes but hasn't been himself, clearly struggling in his return from a bulging disc in his neck and some kind of flu-like illness along the way. Chandler hasn't dominated the interior on either end for longer than a minute or two at a time and his health seems to have led the Knicks away from their deadly pick-and-roll game. Chandler was limited to about twenty minutes per in games one and two, well below his 32-minute regular season average and had just three points and five rebounds in each. In games three and four, Chandler played around his regular season average and his 6.5 point and 8.5 rebound averages didn't come close to his regular season ten point-ten board standard. With Chandler it isn't about numbers, but they're telling the story: he's not 100% but he's improving. Still, if Kevin Garnett wasn't 50,000-plus game-minutes into his career and Rajon Rondo wasn't out for the year, the Celtics might be capable of exploiting Chandler's weakness.
It hasn't all been bad for TC, of course.
Jason Kidd made two big threes to tie the game at the start of the second quarter of game one, but since then he's been very quiet. His nine rebounds in game four were nice but with JR Smith suspended the Knicks needed him to score a point or two in the 37 minutes he played. He failed, shooting 0-5. He has just eleven points over the course of the series.
Another Knick who could have picked up some of the scoring load for the Knicks in Smith's absence was Chris Copeland, who started game one, playing thirteen quiet minutes. He hasn't played since, even as the Knicks blew the Celtics out and emptied the bench, going so far as to play Quentin Richardson, who they signed less than two weeks ago. In Smith's absence, Richardson even played in the second quarter of game four, taking minutes that would typically have been Copeland's. There are rumors floating around that he's dealing with an injury and if that's the case, it'd be nice for the Knicks if he got healthy. One extra basket in regulation in game four and this series could have been over. A healthy Chris Copeland could have provided it.
Just as Marcus Camby provides a link to the Knicks of the nineties, Quentin Richardson provides a link to the 2000s Knicks. The difference is that the nineties Knicks were cool while the 2000s Knicks were an abomination. Watching Richardson play for the Knicks in playoff victories is surreal.
After three uninspiring performances, Knick-killer Paul Pierce woke up in game four. His 29 point, eight rebound, six assist performance was vintage Pierce. Thus far, the Celtics' guard play has been abominable, Jeff Green hasn't been able to play four strong quarters and Kevin Garnett hasn't had any impact. If the Celtics are going to win another game in this series, it'll be on Pierce's back. And with game five not until Wednesday, Pierce may be able to get enough rest to do it again.
Not to scare anyone, but Amar'e Stoudemire might be coming back soon. Sweet timing.
Knick of the Week: Of course Carmelo Anthony carried the Knicks to three victories and could easily receive this award, but that wouldn't be any fun. And besides, Anthony's performance was a given. Raymond Felton, on the other hand, was no sure thing. Avery Bradley is an elite perimeter defender and Kevin Garnett, even aged, is an elite interior one known for his ability to bottle up the pick-and-roll. But Felton's played as well as he has all season. He's attacked the basket off pick-and-rolls and scored, whether Garnett's been in the game or not and has knocked down quite a few spot-up jumpers.
The sixteen points Felton scored in the last 7:12 of the third quarter in game four was the reason the Knicks were able to come back from nineteen down to force overtime. His 27 points were almost enough to make up for the absence of JR Smith and his fifteen points and ten assists in game three were excellent. Felton's balling.
Anything Funny?: JR Smith got suspended, not erased. Smith's high school yearbook was located this week. His quote suggests that JR hasn't changed much since senior year.
This NBA Year in Flops video is quite the gas too.
Up Next:Exactly as predicted, the Knicks will look to close out the Celtics in game five, something they ought to be able to do. Assuming that happens they'll wait to see the result of Pacers-Hawks, where the Pacers are currently up 2-1. Otherwise, it'll be on to Boston for game six Friday night.