Pride and stubbornness can be hard to parse. You can see both on display when Kevin Garnett answers questions from the media, the disdain visible in his curling brow. Asked Sunday about the mentality of coming into the game down 3-0, Garnett feigns as if he doesn’t understand the question. Asked again if facing elimination was a factor in his team’s 97-90 win over the Knicks in Game 4, Garnett simply replies, “No.”
The Celtics have rarely been more prideful or stubborn than they were Sunday at TD Garden. They had every reason to pack it in, having failed to reach 80 points in each of the first three games of the series. Sunday, the Garden was half-full by tip-off, and early in the game, the cheers of Knicks fans dressed in orange-and-blue matched those for the home team. No NBA team has ever faced a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series and come back to win.
Given the odds, you could have excused the Celtics for wanting to jet off to the Caribbean a few days early, but instead they came out firing on all cylinders. Paul Pierce knocked down big shots, and Brandon Bass flustered Carmelo Anthony into bad ones. The Celtics held the Knicks to 17 points in the first quarter and built a 19-point halftime lead. There was life in the building.
Then, just as quickly as it had come, the Celtics watched a 20-point third-quarter lead evaporate as Garnett and Jeff Green picked up their fourth fouls and Bass picked up his fifth.
“The third quarter for us, with the fouls, it was hard,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “I mean, we were shuffling guys in and out. I was just trying to tell them we had a three-point lead, and let’s keep playing. Let’s play through the game.”
The Celtics kept playing, but so did the Knicks, who took their first lead on a Raymond Felton jumper with 1:18 left in the fourth. Bass had fouled out. Pierce looked gassed. For the first time this series, we had a game in the second half. And yet the Celtics continued to fight through the fourth quarter, forcing overtime and then winning there as the much-maligned Jason Terry put up nine points in the extra frame.
“We wanted to survive,” said Garnett. “This is the position we put ourselves in. To continue to play we’ve got to continue to win.”
The Celtics scored just 31 points in the first half of Game 3 Friday night and were booed off the court at the break; too few fans stuck around to boo them off the court after the final buzzer.
Given a second chance to stave off elimination, the Celtics displayed the mental toughness Sunday that has made them such a tough opponent over the last few seasons. They were hardly mistake-free, committing six turnovers in the first quarter, but they fought through the errors and kept up their defense. Led by Pierce’s example, the Celtics built a 54-35 halftime lead. Pierce continued to struggle with turnovers, committing five or more for the fourth consecutive game, but the Celtics veteran never stopped being aggressive or wanting the ball. He led the Celtics with 29 points
“There was a lot of pride,” said Pierce. “Us as the captains of the team, we gotta instill it in these guys.”
One player who has inserted himself into a leadership position this season is Terry, who had 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting after scoring 23 points combined in the first three games. He hasn’t been reliable, but afterward Knicks guard Jason Kidd said of Terry, “He’s a fighter. He’s not going to give up, I’ve seen it up close.”
Said Terry, “When your leaders are KG, Pierce, and myself, we have too much pride. Getting swept is something that no man that’s been in this league that long wants to do.”
Terry was at his best Sunday after taking a flagrant elbow from New York’s J.R. Smith in Game 3. That foul no doubt inspired Terry, who took several opportunities to ham it up to the crowd after making big baskets. Starting with Smith, the Knicks did their part to make the Celtics a prideful team again. New York looked stagnant on offense for large chunks of the game without Smith. Knicks coach Mike Woodson inexplicably went away from double-teaming Pierce and Green on every catch, and it hurt them in the first half as the Celtics built their lead. Better ball pressure might have prevented New York from being down so much in the first place.
Still, the Celtics deserve credit for refusing to fold. Despite Sunday’s loss, the Knicks have shown that they’re the better basketball team. They’ve got more room for error in each game. The Celtics are relying on their pride, their refusal to quit. After the game, Pierce and Garnett were both asked if they had given any thought to their uncertain futures in Boston. Pierce said he hadn’t thought about it because he hadn’t thought about losing Game 4. Before the game, in fact, Pierce said he had called some friends in New York to make plans for dinner. It was the kind of stubborn, prideful answer we’ve come to expect.