NEW YORK — One team is gritty, the other gutless. One is erratic, the other almost tedious in its methodical approach. The Celtics and Knicks could not be more different, and the clash of styles is beginning to bleed into the series like Curt Schilling’s stitched-up ankle into a white athletic sock.
With a win in the hostile environment of Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, the Celtics proved they handle anything the Knicks throw at them. They proved they’re the mentally tougher team, but we already knew that. What we didn’t know, what we’re beginning to find out, is that the inherent style differences between the two squads may override any difference in talent.
Frequent Celtics observers know how often Celtics coach Doc Rivers preaches sharing the ball. We need to make the extra pass. We need to trust one another. Rivers preaches the mantra to the point of boredom. But one of the greatest assets of the Rivers-Garnett-Pierce Celtics is to say something wise and cliched and mean it. The Celtics didn’t share the ball in the first three games. They didn’t make the extra pass, and they failed to score 80 points in each.
Through the first three games of the series the Celtics totaled 48 turnovers to 46 assists. In wins in Games 4 and 5 the Celtics turned that stat around, assisting on 42 baskets while turning the ball over 31 times. In other words, the Celtics have turned their words into action.
“I thought we moved the ball tonight,” Kevin Garnett said after putting up 16 points and 18 rebounds in Game 5. “I thought we trusted each other. We put ourselves in this position, so it’s what it is. We’ve got to trust each other at this point. We have no other options.”
That trust was on display in Game 5. In some cases Celtics players waited for things to open up, the result of several extra passes finding Jason Terry or Jeff Green for one of Boston’s 11 3-pointers. In others, it was a trust of the system and each other. A reverse bounce pass from Pierce to Garnett in the first half split three defenders and found Garnett for the dunk. An inch one way or the other and that’s a turnover, but each player trusted the other to do the right thing. The result was 92 points on 46 percent shooting, the Celtics’ highest shooting percentage of the series.
“One-on-one basketball doesn’t work against this team,” said Garnett. “For us to be successful we have to lean on one another, and that’s what we’re doing on both ends.”
The Knicks, on the other hand, seem content to live and die by the jump shot. Carmelo Anthony had his second straight poor shooting game. He’s now 18 for his last 59 shots from the floor. J.R. Smith missed his first 10 shots Wednesday night. The Knicks never adjusted. With a bigger, less mobile Brandon Bass on him, Anthony never went to a pick-and-roll, choosing instead to isolate on Bass and allowing Bass’s size to bother his jump shot. What’s worse for the Knicks, Anthony didn’t seem to realize the strategy was a bad one.
“We’re just not making shots,” he said. “I don’t think Boston is doing anything that they haven’t been doing. … We good.”
That kind of bold talk is representative of New York’s problems across the board. Smith started the Knicks down the path with his senseless elbow of Terry in Game 3. Kenyon Martin continued it by telling his Knicks teammates to wear black to the arena Wednesday night to prepare for the Celtics’ funeral. Both acts of hubris fueled the Celtics, who are nothing if not proud.
“We’re here to win games and take care of business,” said Jeff Green, who had 18 points in Game 5. “Whatever shenanigans they want to pull, dressing all in black, they can do that.”
On the other hand, outside of newcomer Jordan Crawford, the Celtics are saying all the right things.
“Put your hard hats on,” Garnett said in yet another of his perfect postgame interviews.
Whether they’re up or down, the Celtics prepare the same way, Garnett scowling his way through warm-ups, Pierce offering up wagers for pre-game trick shots. That ability not to get too high or low paid off in Game 5 after the Celtics found themselves down 11-0 early. Rather than panic, the Celtics played their game, methodically chipping away at the lead. Brandon Bass scored nine of the Celtics’ first 11 points to keep his team within two points at the end of the first quarter.
“We hung in there,” said Rivers. “We talked before the game that we have to fight amazing emotion to start the game, which happened there. We called a timeout and I kept telling them, ‘We are fine. We are good, keep hanging in there.'”
The Celtics have used the same approach to climb back into this series. They’re treating each game like a Game 7, and they actually mean it. Winning one game at a time really does add up to four straight wins. The C’s are halfway out of their hole, and comparisons to the 2004 Red Sox are mounting. New York teams are now 0-6 when holding a 3-0 lead on a Boston team in a seven-game series. But “Why Not Us?”, the rallying cry so fitting for the ’04 Sox, doesn’t fit. For these stubborn old Celtics it’s more like, “See, We Told You.”
The plan for Game 6 is more of the same. If the Celtics believe they’ve exposed vulnerabilities in the Knicks, they’re not letting on.
“Our mentality has to be all out,” said Garnett. “It can’t be anything different than that. We’re down 3-2. The next game we lose is it. I don’t know what everybody’s talking about getting comfortable, feeling good. We’re down 3-2. It’s not like we evened it up and we’re going back home. No. We’re down 3-2. I don’t know what’s comfortable about it.”
Being taken out of their comfort zone has clearly rattled the Knicks, but the Celtics seem to revel in it. The setup at MSG is such that the teams have to cross over each other on the way to the court. As the teams made their way out for warmups Wednesday night, Garnett and Pierce led the Celtics through the heart of New York’s layup line to get the team where it needed to be. The Knicks let them do it. It was a subtle reminder that these Celtics won’t be easily pushed aside.