In the NBA playoffs, you’re only as good as the last time you took the court, and there’s no more important game than the next. That sentence might not be true, but it is. Or that’s the perception. Or something.
In any event, here’s the deal: In any playoff series, especially one as evenly matched as this year’s battle between the Celtics and Knicks, games will be won and lost in the fourth quarter. Regardless of all the good, the bad and the ugly that comes before it, the final quarter will tell the story and all else will be forgotten. Not just the previous 36 minutes, but also the previous 82 (or 81) games. For better or (almost always) worse, that’s just the way we roll as a basketball society. It’s all about short-term memory and instant overreaction.
The Celtics lost Game 1, so they’re doomed. If the Celtics win Game 2, Indiana here they come! If the Celtics lose Game 2? Might as well start strategizing for the draft and planning KG’s retirement party because we’re looking at a sweep!
But in reality, I’m not sure how a loss to the Knicks tonight — regardless of how it goes down, and short of some horrific injury — could leave the Celtics in a worse position than they were after two games in their last playoff series, against Miami in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Celtics lost Game 1 of that Miami series 93-79, a lackluster effort that left them looking wildly overmatched. In Game 2, Rajon Rondo scored 44 points and the Boston pushed the Heat into overtime, before falling short and seemingly ending their season. There was no way the Celtics could recover from that. They’d ruined their only chance to steal a game in Miami, they’d expended too much energy and will to have nothing to show for it. They were headed back to Boston, a dead team walking, with the stars aligned for Miami to take at least one game and wrap the series up in five . . .
You know what happened next (even if they ultimately did lose). And we shouldn’t forget that as the Celtics take the court tonight at MSG. We definitely shouldn’t forget it as they walk off the court. Win or lose, this series isn’t over. It doesn’t even start until the home team loses a game. By the time this first round wraps up, the details of Saturday’s Game 1 and tonight’s Game 2 will be a distant memory. An appetizer. And not something that sticks with you, like say potato skins or quesadillas. It’s like a salad. By the time the next course comes, you won’t even feel it.
With that said, the Celtics obviously want to win tonight, and I hate myself for even writing that. While it may not decide the series, an 0-2 hole is about as comfortable as the back of a Volkswagen. And while the Celtics may have come up short on Saturday when it mattered most (a.k.a. the fourth quarter), there were plenty of positives to build on. Things that might possibly set the foundation for Boston to steal one tonight at MSG.
It starts with Brandon Bass’s defense on Carmelo Anthony. In the words of Doc Rivers, Bass played a “perfect game” on Saturday, and best of all, that perfect game wasn’t a matter of hitting his jump shot (which, for any player, can be inconsistent from game to game). It was about that defense. It was about a commitment to pestering one of the best scorers in this league, and, short of foul trouble, that’s something that Bass should be able to bring to the table every game. Of course, we’re talking about the league’s leading scorer here, so either way, he’s probably going to get his points — somewhere close to 30. But there’s an easy 30 points, and a hard 30 points, and there’s no question that Bass will make 'Melo work for them. The harder he works in the first three quarters, the less juice he’ll have down the stretch and the better chance the Celtics will have to walk away with a win.
Avery Bradley looked better in Game 1 than he has in nearly a month. He looked healthy and energetic, he was slashing to the hoop and even hit a few jumpers. He picked up two fouls in the first quarter, but then only one more for the rest of the game — and that’s what the Celtics need. They need him on the floor. And while he’s there, I wouldn’t mind Doc giving him a chance to guard J.R. Smith. Bass may present some type of “answer” to the 'Melo problem, but Smith is still a nightmare. Depending on the match-ups it might not be so easy, but at this point it seems like the best chance of slowing down Smith starts with getting under his skin and breaking his focus. And there may not be a perimeter player in the league more adept at doing that to the opposition than Avery Bradley.
Sticking with the positive, Jeff Green's first half in Game 1 was unbelievably inspiring. Obviously, his second half was just as concerning, but seeing how this was his first playoff game since truly arriving in Boston, that flash of decisiveness and confidence in the early going was something to build on. It’s better than nothing, which is a sad way to have to look at, but still — better than nothing. Bottom line: Green scored 26 points, he had seven rebounds and was 7-for-7 from the line. He was far from perfect, and still way too inconsistent, but you’ll take that stat line from a guy who should be your third option. Down the stretch, maybe even your fourth.
And that brings us to the negative, and here, there’s not much room for interpretation. In order for the Celtics to come out on top tonight and/or in this series, it’s not necessarily a matter of what they need to do, but who they need to be.
Kevin Garnett needs to be Kevin Garnett. Obviously, Game 1 was ugly. Of course, these wouldn’t be the first playoffs where we’ve seen an inconsistent KG; where some nights he looks like the reincarnation of his former self, and other nights like a man in his mid-30s with a crazy amount of years and far too many minutes under his belt. The only question this year is if that former self still exists, or if his foot injury will just be too much to overcome.
Jason Terry needs to be Jason Terry. The guy from Dallas, not the impostor from the last six months.
Paul Pierce needs to be Paul Pierce, not a player who dominates in spurts, and especially if KG isn’t right.
In the bigger picture, there are turnover issues for the Celtics, but that will be better if the three guys above are. Those turnovers result from either them not being at their best, or guys who shouldn’t be trying to do too much trying to do too much to pick up the slack.
The question is if the Celtics — especially the three veterans I just mentioned — have it in them to make one last run. Of course, that’s been the question all year. It’s been the question for the last three or four years. And recent (recent) history doesn’t give you too much confidence.
While we’d like to think that Boston has enough to knock out the Knicks, the truth is that it’s been a while since the Celtics have been anything close to the team they need to be. Other than the 14-4 run in the immediate aftermath of Rondo’s injury, they were 27-36 this year. They’re very much below average. Meanwhile, the Knicks aren’t the No. 2 seed by mistake. They’re a damn good team, and the argument that “Carmelo isn’t a winner” only goes so far. While the Celtics finished the year losing 11 of their last 16 games, the Knicks won 16 of their last 18, including victories in Oklahoma City and Miami. They were prepping themselves for a long playoff run, and proving they had what it takes. Meanwhile, the Celtics were sitting back and hoping for the best, and not providing their fans with much reason to do the same.
Lucky for them, one solid fourth quarter tonight can erase all those memories and suddenly thrust them into the driver’s seat.
At least until the start of Game 3.