By Ian Thomsen
BOSTON – Two games reveal two sides of the Carmelo Anthony coin. In Game 1, with a chance to win at the buzzer, he misses a long three. Should he have passed instead?
Game 2 on Tuesday finds Anthony with another chance to win. Glen Davis rambles over to double-team him like a bull on top of the matador. Anthony looks over his shoulder and does what he is always hearing he should do more often. Down by a point, he passes up the shot.
“You all can’t have it both ways,” said Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, stifling a bitter laugh after the Knicks’ 96-93 loss left them down 0-2 on their way home for Game 3 Friday. “He made the right play.”
Anthony had conjured up one of the greatest postseason performances by a visitor under these Celtic banners: 42 points, 17 rebounds, six assists (with just one turnover) and two blocks in 44 thrilling minutes. His Knicks were absent Chauncey Billups, sidelined by a strained left knee at the end of Game 1, and Amar’e Stoudemire, who for the first time in his life suffered back spasms that limited him to four points on nine shots in 18 gruesome minutes.
“I came down a pick-and-roll one time,” said Anthony of passing to Stoudemire in the second quarter. “I got in the paint and I swung it to him and I seen him just grab his back. It was just like, damn, another one of our guys are gone. Mike came up to me in a timeout and was like, ‘Amar’e is done, we need you to carry us tonight.’
“My thing was to just go out there, not try to carry the team by scoring the basketball, but just doing everything. Making guys feel comfortable out there on the court, giving them a lot of confidence when they’re open to shoot it. Defensively there was a lot of talking, a lot of communicating out there.”
Those who view Anthony in the pessimistic, glass-half-empty way will say this is how he wanted it, surrounded by no stars with whom to share. But this loss, of all things, revealed a more enlightened truth about him. Throughout a sensational fourth quarter he elevated four second-unit teammates who wouldn’t be able to even crack Boston’s rotation – Toney Douglas, Bill Walker, Roger Mason Jr. and Jared Jeffries, who failed to convert Anthony’s decisive pass – to overcome a seven-point Celtics lead and force them to score down the stretch to keep up. Anthony’s final score, a flared three released after he had been bodied by Paul Pierce, put New York up 91-88 with 2:37 remaining. Thereafter the Celtics would double-team him with each catch of the ball, and each time he would circulate it to the open man. He wouldn’t shoot again.
There could be no team more disappointed with a 2-0 lead than the Celtics, who have achieved success in this series mainly when frantic. If it weren’t for Rajon Rondo’s 14 first-quarter points scored mostly in transition (on his way to a career playoff-best 30 in conjunction with seven assists), they wouldn’t have had much of any first-half offense Tuesday. Not until Pierce (20 points) asserted himself off the dribble with an array of third-quarter jumpers were they able to restore Rondo to his usual playmaking role.
Even then they needed Rondo to poke-steal Douglas’ front-court dribble to create a back-door dunk for Garnett to reclaim the lead at 92-91 with 1:22 to go. But then a loose-ball frenzy scrambled the Celtics’ defense, enabling Jeffries to amble in a soft layup to put Boston in a 93-92 hole with 19.3 seconds remaining. This time, Garnett responded with a winning jump hook after he had received the inbound pass deep in the left block against Jeffries.
Afterward the Celtics would react as if they had lost, knowing not only that they didn’t deserve to win Game 2 but also that they’re in no current position to return to the Finals. An opponent known for defensive negligence, has held the Celtics to 45.4 percent shooting over two games, well below their season average. The NBA’s No. 29 rebounding team (in terms of rebounding percentage during the season) out-rebounded them 53-37 on Tuesday, including 20-to-9 on the offensive boards – a grim recreation of the Game 7 rebounding collapse that cost Boston the Finals last June. Its issues on the glass were inflamed by its unproductive bench and its poor team defense against Anthony. “That’s why you don’t like to trap … because we had to go trap, we were less one guy on the glass,” said coach Doc Rivers, who blamed his bench for enabling Anthony’s revolt. “When the bench came in the first quarter, Carmelo hadn’t been scoring, Amar’e was physically struggling — and then Carmelo caught fire, he had back-to-back three-point plays. We didn’t close out any quarter.”
That last part was true, other than their play at the very end.
“I’m extremely happy, I think you can tell that,” said Rivers glumly. “We’re going to have to be better – we’re going to have to be much better in New York – to win the games. And we will be.”
But so may be the Knicks, if they can find a way to pair Stoudemire’s 28-point performance in Game 1 with Anthony’s showing Tuesday. Anthony had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four assists by halftime to push New York ahead 45-44, and his 14 points in the third were all that kept the Knicks in it as Pierce and Ray Allen (4-of-4 in the quarter overall, including a trio of threes) tried to pull away. It has been easy to criticize Anthony since Denver has exploited his absence, improving since his midseason departure, but that trade looked suddenly and exceedingly smart for New York as he punished the Celtics in every area while exposing their most pressing weaknesses they must fix – quickly – this postseason.
Most impressive was his inspirational impact, as Douglas, Jeffries and Mason (who hadn’t been expected to make a meaningful appearance in this series) made crucial plays around him. “I made other guys better,” said Anthony matter-of-factly. “They felt confident out there when they got the ball to make something happen. For the most part we played great tonight. We can’t hang our heads over something like this. We’ve got to take this and build on it going back home.”
But the best advice is hardest to absorb: Surely, Anthony was wondering what his final pass might have done for his new team as well as his own reputation. He zipped the ball inside to the 6-foot-11 Jeffries, who had played 138 minutes before the Rockets bought him out in February to let him join with the Knicks. With Garnett closing in, Jeffries tepidly tried to shuffle an interior pass to Walker that Garnett stole while remaining in bounds.
A long wait resulted with a timeout being awarded to Boston with 4.1 seconds remaining, while at the other end of the floor Anthony raised his arm to Jeffries to ask why he hadn’t gone straight up for the lay-in or dunk. Then a final indignity: A sideline inbounds to Delonte West flaring into the backcourt caught the enervated Anthony off guard, and he was unable to foul until all but six-tenths of the final second had run out.
“My message to them after the game,” said Anthony of his teammates, “was Boston didn’t do anything but take care of home court. Now we’ve got to go home and do what we’ve got to do.”
Now he faces the hardest part of any young star’s career. He made the right plays and failed anyway. What will he do next time?