Okay. To begin with, I need to type this out, if only to soothe my own blood pressure: The Knicks are up 3-1. They were previously up 3-0. The only thing standing between the Knicks and a second-round series is something that has never happened in professional basketball. It is more than likely going to be okay. Okay.
Now: What a nightmare of a game. For Celtics fans, that must have been nostalgic. For us, it was a harrowing flashback to the old formula-- Knicks blunder their way to a huge deficit, march all the way back in the second half, then collapse down the stretch. We were even subject to a sneering villain's celebration after big shots, only it was Jason Terry instead of Paul Pierce, which is kind of worse.
At the center of the loss: Carmelo Anthony, and Mike Woodson, too. I was heartened after Game 3 by Melo's unabashed determination to make it a sweep, but it backfired-- explosively, exceptionally so. It was as if star and coach came to a pre-game agreement that all the wonderful offensive adjustments from previous games must be eschewed for a heroic Melo performance. The Knicks gave up quickly on pick-and-rolls or just forewent them entirely. Nearly every minute of Melo's 45 was an obdurate, team-wide mission to force the ball to Melo on the wing, then let him jab and jiggle his way to one back-rimmed jumper after another-- sometimes over single coverage, often over creeping help. There were games this season in which that strategy worked for stretches, but it clearly wasn't clicking this afternoon, and the failure snowballed in a way we've also seen several times before. Not only did Melo brick his contested two-pointers, he met charge calls and inhospitable rolls at the rim, boned open threes off the catch, and earned no reward for the occasions on which he did pass out of double teams. The approach had its merits-- much of Melo's blatant foul-baiting did, in fact, draw fouls-- but it was a bad, bad look, and the periods during which New York recovered only highlighted the ugliness.
It was, of course, not just Melo who shoveled the Knicks into a 19-point halftime deficit. The Celtics, for their part, finally found net on the jumpers that had been striking rim all series long. And the Knicks accelerated the Boston offense by committing a wildly aberrant 12 turnovers-- a whole game's worth for this team-- in the first half alone. Just silly, unforced boners all around, and ample missed jumpers as well, which always seems to be the case. With these Knicks, when it's one thing, it's all the things. It was definitely all the things in the first half. Dudes looked drunk.
While Melo's play never recovered-- and holy shit, did it have so many opportunities to recover-- the rest of the bros emerged from the doldrums. The third quarter saw New York pick at the deficit with free throws, then erupt once Melo went to the bench. Anthony sat with his fourth foul (third charge) with 3:34 left in the third and the margin eroded to 13. The Knicks owned that 3:34 with a performance that, to me, was equal parts the offense reverting to its natural and Raymond Felton catching a wave every bit as flukey as Melo's slump. Two positive and cooperative, but different hands pitched into the run: One one hand, a three-point guard lineup snatched myriad turnovers, ceased leaking turnovers of their own, somehow managed to steal offensive rebounds, and reinvigorated the ball movement out of the pick-and-roll. On the other hand, Felton just got absurdly hot. This penguin dropped 16 points in the third quarter, generating his 5-8 line for the period on maybe one or two drives, but mostly straight-on, pull-up threes when the Celtics ducked under screens.
Anyway, through some combination of healthier, more organic basketball in Melo's absence and Felton getting inordinately silly, the Knicks cut 13 to three in those 3:34, punctuating the quarter with a two-for-one that seemed a tribute to the suspended J.R. Smith-- Iman Shumpert drilling a step-back three, then Felton skittering up the floor to drill a buzzer-beating bomb.
The fourth quarter and overtime comprised a fascinating (well, it would have been fascinating if I weren't foaming at the mouth the whole time) microcosm of the whole game. Melo returned just a minute and change into the fourth and got right back to parking at the elbow until the Knicks force-fed him an iso. The isos, at least, were mostly geared toward attacking the basket, and that strategy saw better returns with just one or two errors mixed in. Anthony got Brandon Bass into deep foul trouble, then fouled him out entirely. He blew by some awful Kevin Garnett contests for a couple productive drives to the rim and penetrated and kicked to a Shumpert three in the corner. Then, with the game tied, Melo caught and rimmed out a great look at a three-pointer that would have given the Knicks their first lead. They'd eventually grab that lead-- if briefly-- off a Felton jumper, but Melo's attack seemed to recede, perhaps because he was now guarded by Jeff Green instead of tired, tentative bigs. With the pick-and-roll-- again-- either dismissed after one misfire or ignored entirely, Melo returned to launching contested jumpers off the floor, missing not only those yucky attempts but a couple crucial free throws as well. The fourth ended with Tyson Chandler helping off Garnett and surrendering an open jumper, then Pierce rimming out a game-winner we all thought would drop. Overtime was just more of Melo pounding his head into a wall while the other Knicks waffled on open attempts and Jason Terry caught fire and pretended to be an airplane like all human adults do when they feel mighty.
The Knicks nearly won in spite of themselves, but fell short. Shane Pugh's comment-- quoted in the headline above-- could have applied to many points along the torturous recent timeline of this match-up. It summarizes several dozen New York-Boston games over the last few years, and it summarizes Game 4 in a seven-game series in which the Knicks still have historically unassailable command. Today's performance raised some further concerns for me, but for the time being, those concerns spill over into the next series. Back at Madison Square Garden with J.R. Smith in the fold, the Knicks should really be able to make this a gentleman's sweep. Pressing hard on the dynamic offense and ball control that got them this far could make it a romp, but we have reason to believe they can end the thing even with a half-assed outing. I'm not inviting such an outing; I'm just saying.
There won't be a .gif-filled "Leftovers" post for this one-- those are for wins-- but I will hold my more detailed notes, as I've been doing, for tomorrow. For now, I will go outside and breathe fresh air and feel okay because the Knicks are okay. The Knicks are okay. It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. Please. It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay.