They are the team that does not fold. They stare halftime deficits in the face and laugh, knowing that they can more than make up the difference in the second half. They know they simply need to flip the switch, turn up their intensity and leave their opponent flustered, opening the way for another playoff victory.
The Celtics brought that pedigree into their first-round playoff series, but after two games in New York it is the Knicks that have stormed back after clamping down defensively in ways that previous editions of that team never could.
In a display of matinee mediocrity, the Celtics fell apart in Game 1, shooting 25 percent from the field in the second half and mustering a grand total of eight points in the fourth quarter. Everyone said they could not possibly be worse than that in Game 2. They tried. With Jordan Crawford spearheading the assault on the structural integrity of the rims at Madison Square Garden, the Celtics shot 19 percent from the field — seriously, 19 percent — in the second half of an 87-71 loss, dropping them into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series.
Much of the credit for the Knicks’ turnaround has gone to Carmelo Anthony, who surpassed 30 points for the second time in as many games in this series. Truthfully, Anthony has been brilliant. In Game 2, he bounced back from a rough start shooting-wise to pour in 19 of his 34 points after the break, while dishing out a very Melo-esque zero assists in 20 second-half minutes. The man who deserves the most credit for the Knicks’ renewed dedication to defense, however, is coach Mike Woodson.
Some very smart analysts have broken down how the Knicks’ defense has improved schematically this season, and Tyson Chandler‘s transformative work in the middle should not be undersold. But the biggest change is visible even to observers who can not tell the difference between a pick and roll and a pickle roll.
The Knicks just believe they can get stops. That is a quality the Celtics are used to having, but in the first two games, when there was a stop to be made, the Knicks were the team that came through. By the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Knicks switched every screen, even when it left a 35-year-old big man like Kenyon Martin guarding Jason Terry on the perimeter. They just didn’t care. They knew Martin would be able to check Terry, and their confidence oozed into the crowd.
The Celtics went into the game intending to exploit whichever mismatch arose with Paul Pierce and Jeff Green. As it turned out, none did. Even when 6-foot-1 point guard Raymond Felton was forced to defend the 6-foot-6 Pierce, the Knicks did not view it as a mismatch. They viewed it as an opportunity — to create a turnover, to run, to score in transition.
Remember, this is less than a third of the way into the amount of games the NBA has allotted for the series. The Knicks protected their home floor, which is what good playoff teams are supposed to do, and now the Celtics have a chance to protect theirs. Even after two awful second halves, the Celtics should not be dismissed yet.
Still, the Celtics have to feel a little queasy. This is not the same sort of Knicks squad that used to tense up when the game got tough. These Knicks respond to adversity, take whatever the Celtics can throw and give it right back. There has to be something unsettling about seeing a hated rival beat you at your own game.
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