After Wednesday night, it’s easy to view this series as the basketball incarnation of the Red Sox/Yankees playoff series in 2004, where Boston famously overcame New York’s 3-0 lead to win 4-3 on their way to the World Series. Yet it’s really quite different, in spite of the teams being from the same cities. The differences come from the core differences in the two games. In the series in 2004, winning game five was a crucial turning point for the Sox, because they had Pedro Martinez waiting to pitch game six and Curt Schilling ready to take the mound in game seven. As a result, the Yankees were going to be facing an even better team in games six and seven than they did in game five. The other big difference is that regular season results are much more meaningful in the NBA than they are in baseball.
In game six the Knicks will be facing the exact same team they faced in the first five games, the Celtics talent isn’t going to be getting any better. In the first four games of this series and most of the regular season, we had every reason to believe the Knicks were the far superior team. After taking game one by seven and game two by 16, we waited breathlessly to see if things would change in Boston. Yet New York dominated game three even more thoroughly, though "just" winning by 14.
The momentum changer has been the ejection and subsequent suspension of JR Smith. Things were rolling for New York in game three when he was ejected and they might have won by more than 14 had he stayed in the game. Game four was a golden opportunity for Boston to finally win a game: Smith was out with a suspension, the Celtics were in "win or go home" mode, the Knicks were in "we’re up 3-0 and we’ve got this" mode, plus the game was in Boston. Despite these things and an epically bad 10-35 shooting night from Carmelo Anthony (it’s not merely that he shot 29%, it’s that he took 35 shots on a night that he was shooting 29%!), the Celtics still needed overtime to pull out their first win.
So after four games, there still seemed little doubt about the outcome. The Knicks had won three games convincingly and the Celtics had managed to steal one game where the sun, the moon and the stars had aligned just right. So how did game five suddenly introduce us to the coming of the Apocalypse?
Unlike game four, this was a game the Knicks were supposed to win: the Knicks would learn from their mistakes in game four, Smith was back in the fold and they were back in the beloved basketball bastion of Madison Square Garden where the Knicks had seemed invincible all season.
The problem was the Knicks knew they were supposed to win. One only needs to look at their pregame trash talk and sartorial antics to see how clear it was to them that this game was theirs for the taking. The Knicks’ incredible hubris was rewarded with a 92-86 loss that wasn’t as close as the score might suggest.
Yet to suggest that the cost of the Knicks’ hubris will extend to game six and possibly even a game seven is absurd. The reasons that the Knicks won the first three games so convincingly haven’t changed. There were psychological and strategic reasons why New York lost games four and five that just no longer apply. There is no Pedro or Schilling waiting in the wings to bail out the Celtics’ anemic offense. There is a reason why the teams that dominate the NBA regular season typically dominate the playoffs and it applies here. Baseball is all about streaks. If your bats are hot or your pitching is in a funk come October, you can throw out the regular season results in baseball. In the NBA, the coaching, talent and schemes that determined your success in the regular season typically are what will determine the outcome in the postseason.
I cannot imagine that this Knicks team is approaching game six with anywhere near the measure of the overconfidence that they were clearly suffering from in game five. I also can’t imagine we’ll see another game where both teams take 22 three-pointers, yet Boston makes an incredible 11 of them and New York make a mere five of them. The key to games one and two of the series were the defensive adjustments made by Coach Woodson at halftime of those games. After two straight games of miserable offense from one of the NBA’s elite offensive teams, I expect to see Woodson make meaningful adjustments to the New York offense which will be enough to end this series in game six.
Of course if I’m wrong, this is going to be a long offseason…